Dir: Regina King. Starring: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr, Joaquina Kalukango, Nicolette Robinson, Beau Bridges, Lance Reddick. 15, 110 mins
Regina King’s camera in One Night in Miami... never quite stays still. It glides and hovers like a songbird. The Oscar-winning star of If Beale Street Could Talk and TV’s Watchmen, in her feature debut, has delivered a film that hums with the electric charge of its subjects. On the night of 25 February 1964, four titans of Black history descended on Miami’s Hampton House Motel: Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, musician Sam Cooke and NFL star-turned-actor Jim Brown.
That these four men celebrated together that night, after Clay won the World Heavyweight Championship, is historical fact. What playwright Kemp Powers – who also co-directed Pixar’s Soul – spins into speculative fiction are the few hours they spent together behind closed doors. What might these great men talk about? What might put them at odds? What made them laugh? Powers’ original 85-minute stage play, which debuted in 2013, was a beautifully nimble piece of writing, folding ideas about Black Power, art as activism, an individual’s responsibility to their community, and colourism into the natural ebbs and flows of a conversation.
Chaotic joy simmers down into sober reflection, with just the odd flash of anger in between. These are the rhythms we’re all familiar with, from those late-night conversations we’ve had with friends and lovers – the ones that start casually, but always end up with us revealing a little too much of who we are. King gives the material room to breathe. She doesn’t try to radically change its nature but keeps most of its events contained within a single motel room, focusing instead on how the energy shifts from person to person. Occasionally, the characters break out into the night air for a brief respite.
Powers, who adapted his own work for the screen, adds several bookends to the central drama. They offer an added weight and context to these men’s conversations – emotionally gutting is the moment, early on, when Brown (Aldis Hodge) visits a white family friend (Beau Bridges) on Georgia’s St Simons Island. The man fawns over his career success, then nonchalantly call him the N-word and bars him from his home. And it’s all done with a genial smile – in his mind, this is simply how the world works.
Powers’s play is concerned primarily with the reality of being, as Ali (Eli Goree) notes, “young, Black, righteous, unapologetic, famous” in white America. There’s a sense that power becomes both potent and illusory. Malcolm (Kingsley Ben-Adir) knows that if Ali, then still known by the name Cassius Clay, allies with the Nation of Islam, he could lend so much to the cause – even if, at the time, he was considering breaking away from the movement. And he’s frustrated by Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr), whose singing voice has its own sense of emotional authority – Malcolm believes the musician is wasting his time trying to ingratiate himself with the white establishment. “If I win ’em over playing our music, I’m knocking down doors for everybody,” Cooke retorts.
One Night in Miami… allows us to see these men beyond how history has written them – as figures of pure action and ideology – and as something more relatably human. They’re ruled by fears and hesitations. And King has found a perfect quartet of actors in that sense. Goree can showboat just like Ali, but sees him also as a 22-year-old, still a little naive, who doesn’t quite know what to do with all this greatness. Hodge allows Brown to reflect, a little wearily, on how superficial America’s worship of Black athletes always turns out to be. “We’re all just gladiators, Cass, with our ruler sitting up there in the box,” he tells Ali. The magnetism of Odom’s voice, already demonstrated in Hamilton, is here reasserted when he performs Cooke’s famous protest anthem “A Change is Gonna Come”.
But it’s Ben-Adir’s Malcolm who becomes the film’s gravitational point. In all the levity, in all these impassioned debates, he seems nervous and unsettled – his words laced with an unspoken urgency, as if he knew his time was nearly up. Less than a year later, Malcolm was assassinated. Cooke had been killed a few months earlier. King’s film, which marks the birth of a new, exciting directorial voice, honours them the best way she can – by allowing us a glimpse at the men behind the history.