‘One Night in Miami’ the Most Meaningful Night That Never Happened
As compelling as well-executed biopics are (especially for Oscar voters), sometimes it’s even more interesting to take famous figures and place them in “what if” scenarios viewers have never seen before. (Nikola Tesla and his cloning machine in ‘The Prestige,’ and Honest Abe and his axe in ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’ come to mind.)
But while those films offer interesting twists on iconic figures, they’re fantasies meant for entertainment only.
In her directorial debut, Oscar winner Regina King (and screenwriter Kemp Powers) bring Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Cassius Clay together for a much more plausible and meaningful cause in ‘One Night in Miami.’
Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir and Aldis Hodge star in ‘One Night in Miami.’ (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)
It’s February 1964 and a 22-year-old (pre-Muhammad Ali) Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) has just defeated Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world. On hand to support their friend are NFL great Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and civil rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir).
To celebrate Clay’s win, the quartet retires to X’s hotel where the friends discuss life, their personal and professional triumphs and struggles, squabble with one another, and – more pointedly – discuss how each of them is (or could be) helping to improve conditions for African Americans in the 1960s.
The sad (and very real) footnote to this story is that within 12 months of the fictitious meeting, both Cooke and X would be shot and killed.
Aldis Hodge and Leslie Odom Jr. star in ‘One Night in Miami.’ (Photo by Patti Perret. Courtesy of Amazon Studios)
The film is based on Powers’ stage play of the same name, and because it predominantly features the four lead actors and a minimal number of settings, it takes on the more intimate feel that the stage brings. That smaller scale allows you to truly absorb the story and appreciate the individual performances.
While are four “leads” are solid, the two standouts for me are Goree and Ben-Adir. Clay/Ali and X are arguably the most famous of the group and were certainly the most animated in the public eye. Couple that with the fact that both have been portrayed in Oscar-nominated performances (Denzel Washington in ‘Malcolm X’ and Will Smith in ‘Ali’), and audiences have a pre-conceived notion as to what these two characters were and should be. But without the handcuff of “biopic” inhibiting them, they were able to make the characters their own, balancing the over-the-top public persona of each with more subdued and vulnerable moments with friends. Throughout the film you’re acutely aware of who is on screen, but there are enough differences to disconnect from those pre-conceived notions.
Eli Goree and Kingsley Ben-Adir star in ‘One Night in Miami.’ (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)
As much as those individual pieces shine, the person that deserves the most credit here is the person whose job was to assemble all of them: King. ‘One Night in Miami’ isn’t just an outstanding film for a first-time director, it would be a crown jewel for even the most experienced one. She tells a thoughtful and pointed tale that relies on its story and cast to do the heavy lifting, without letting it get slogged down like dialogue-heavy think pieces often do.
As we get into awards season, ‘One Night in Miami’ is going to bring in a lot of accolades and nominations. It doesn’t necessarily “feel” like a Best Picture winner, but it will absolutely be in the discussion and that discussion is merited.
On the off-chance that doesn’t happen, it won’t take away from the impact this “what if” night provides.
‘One Night in Miami’ is available now on Amazon Prime.
★★★★ of ★★★★★