DIRECTOR: Regina King

CAST: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Nicolette Robinson, Michael Imperioli, Beau Bridges, Joaquina Kalukango, Jerome A. Wilson, Amondre D. Jackson, Aaron D. Alexander, Christian Magby, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Jeremy Pope, Christopher Gorham

RUNNING TIME: 110 mins

CERTIFICATE: 15 TBC

BASICALLY…: Over a single night in 1964, Malcolm X (Ben-Adir), Muhammad Ali (Goree), Jim Brown (Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Odom Jr.) gather to discuss their role in the civil rights movement…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

This review is of the cut shown at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2020 – it is currently scheduled to debut on Amazon Prime Video on January 15th 2021.

More than four years after its European debut (and seven years after it first graced the stage), Kemp Powers’ play One Night in Miami returns to the spotlight once more, for a major film adaptation that has already become a prime contender for several accolades this upcoming awards season. Much of the focus has been on its director Regina King – making her filmmaking debut not long after her own Oscar win for her turn in If Beale Street Could Talk – but the film is not just a mere triumph on her part; it is a beautifully acted, very well paced, and altogether smooth character piece which has a number of strong qualities beyond its prolific director.

The film takes place predominantly over a single night in 1964 (barring a prologue introducing our leads), when four famous friends – controversial human rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), up-and-coming boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), singer and producer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and NFL player Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) – spend the evening in a Miami hotel room following Clay’s resounding triumph in the ring which has crowned him the new World Heavyweight Champion. Over the course of the evening, all four men discuss their roles in the ongoing civil rights movement and the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, with some of them expressing concern over each other’s approaches which are either too extreme or not extreme enough in their eyes, soon morphing into not necessarily a showdown of ideologies, but more a clash of egos as each one of them tries to prove how they are contributing to the cause in different, but no less effective, ways.

While the film certainly shows its stage roots with its minimal locations and dialogue-heavy storytelling, King doesn’t let that stop her from making everything look and feel as cinematic as she possibly can; it’s hard to think of a previous time when a double-twin suite in a crummy hotel has come alive on the big screen as much as it does here, yet the director manages to make even the smallest of details pop out in a passionately designed display of intentional mediocrity. She establishes a firm grasp on not just the production design but also the cinematography, the blocking of her actors, the costumes (what few there are), and the careful use of flashbacks so that they don’t entirely distract from the current ongoing chamber piece, making this a directorial debut that’s bound to get her even more recognition as a filmmaker who can make the most out of the limited space in which she can craft something powerful.

If there’s one thing that anyone who sees it can agree on, it’s that One Night in Miami is very much an actors’ movie; King has clearly imparted some of her own on-screen prowess onto her four leads who, if the Lead Actor category at the Oscars were expanded to ten instead of the usual five, would easily fill up two-fifths of the slots. As Malcolm X, Kingsley Ben-Adir radiates grace and charm, but also a fiery arrogance that has convinced him that there is no greater advocate for the black cause than himself; as Cassius Clay – soon to be Muhammad Ali – Eli Goree inhabits the legendary boxer’s fierce confidence but also shows a more vulnerable side to the man as he weighs his own spiritual choices going forward; as Sam Cooke, Leslie Odom Jr. phenomenally replicates the real singer’s voice while also showing great resilience when his character is accused of condescending too much to white audiences; and as Jim Brown, Aldis Hodge captures the growing frustration of how, despite his and his peers’ success in their respective fields, the colour of their skin still prohibits true progression (just watch an early conversation between him and Beau Bridges, which starts off nice and friendly only to end on a crushing final blow, where you can feel Brown’s disappointment swallowing him whole). All four actors are incredible in this film, so much so that it’s hard to even single any of them out as being a highlight. Their comradery and back-and-forths with each other are a massive source of the drama as well as some of its lighter moments, with their combined charisma and sympathetic plights making for some extremely engaging character moments evenly shared between all four of them.

It is a very impressive first go behind the camera for Regina King, who holds everything together nicely as do her outstanding four leads, and while you can always tell that this was material which originated on the stage – again, it’s hard to shake from its limited settings when a film has the potential to explore even more of this world – you’re still captivated by the human drama that’s unfolding within these hotel walls. Who’s to say how far it will go when awards season eventually gets underway, though don’t count out at least one or two nods for some of the lead actors, and maybe even King herself could score a handful of nominations along the way; whatever the outcome, this is a fine piece of work that has plenty going for it, and on more than one occasion it’s a knockout.

SO, TO SUM UP…

One Night in Miami is an impressive directorial debut for Regina King, who makes the most of the limitations that the original stage play sets for itself by making everything look and feel as cinematic as they possibly can, especially a fantastic quartet of lead performances who each deliver some of the best turns in a film you’ll perhaps see all year.