It’s great to see black history and representation increasing on the big screen, but not all of the best stories of history actually happened, well at least not the way they’re depicted in film. Such is the case for “One Night in Miami” the directorial debut of Oscar winner Regina King and an adaptation of the stage play by Kemp Powers who also wrote the screenplay. The film presents us with a fictional version of a real-life gathering between four prominent black celebrities in 1964 during the Civil Rights movement: Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Mahammad Ali (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.). These four were friends in real life and this film examines an actual event with fictional context where the four reflect on their celebrity during a time when men and women of their race were fighting for their own acceptance in the United States. It’s an engaging look at a neat “what if” scenario while also serving as a meaningful tribute to these four men and their individual legacies.
“One Night in Miami” starts out by showing us each of the four men in their personal and professional lives setting the stage for anyone who might be unfamiliar with who they are and why they are famous. It takes a while to get to their gathering though, half an hour to be exact, as all four friends eventually come together to celebrate Ali’s surprise win over Sonny Liston. What plays out from there is a delightfully engaging examination of these celebrities and their personalities and friendship. Similar to 2020’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, this stage-to-screen adaptation tries to keep things on a small scale serving a something akin to a bottle episode you might find on TV focusing more on the characters and their interactions and relationships than the setting itself. In fact, we get to see very little of Miami in this film as much of the action is confined to a room at the Hampton House or the surrounding amenities of the hotel. At first I was a little put off by the fact that it took so long, one quarter of the movie in fact, to get to the gathering but I realized quickly that the setup was meant to help establish where these men were at this moment in their lives which in turn plays an important role in understanding how their conversations play out.
A lot of time in this movie is spent on the relationship between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke although Ali and Brown get plenty of moments to shine as Ali is making his transition to the Muslim faith and Brown serves as the more level headed moderator of the group. All four actors are spectacular as an ensemble cast. Kingsley Ben-Adir and Leslie Odom, Jr. specifically are highlight performers since, as previously stated, a lot of the focus is put on the relationship between Malcolm and Cooke but Aldis Hodge and Eli Goree steal quite a few scenes themselves especially later in the film when the focus becomes less on Malcolm and Cooke’s debate and more on each man’s reflection on their own individual stories in an era where black men and women were still very much oppressed in the United States. The script certainly helps as Kemp Powers adapts his stage play flawlessly to the screen with great one-liners that cut right to the heart of the issues being addressed while never seeming too pandering and all of these statements feel like they fit the celebrities they’re assigned to. The clashing personalities help bring to light themes of artistic integrity and the responsibilities celebrities have to enact positive change for their communities, which all of these men helped do in their own way. This meeting forces all of them to also address their failures as well making them question if they’ve done enough to help their fellow man.
I really enjoyed the flow of this film as well. While director Regina King still needs some polish in her approach to editing and transitioning, she showcases a true appreciation and understanding of the craft here. The pacing is near perfect even in the driest parts and rarely does the film feel like it’s playing with filler simply to add to a character’s screen time. Kemp Powers creates a concise and sincere adaptation of his own work while King brings the best out of her actors as they do justice to the famous figures they represent. Intentionally or not, by mixing together elements of edit-heavy cinematic storytelling with more stage-based camerawork to create an interesting mix of Broadway and Hollywood King does her best to maintain the integrity of the stage play aesthetic but takes liberties where appropriate to give it a more cinematic treatment. While these two approaches may not always mesh, the overall aesthetic compliments the screenplay and performances rather than overpowering them or distracting from the story. It’s a promising debut for King and hopefully a deserving star-making feature for its cast who give it their all to do respect to their famous characters.
“One Night in Miami” continues a growing resurgence in the relevance and quality of stage-to-screen adaptations reminding us that films like “Cats” are a minority in this category. Interestingly enough it also continues a trend of successful play adaptations focusing on black characters following films like “Fences” and 2020’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”. Furthermore, it’s yet another film pushing to bring the struggles of black America into the spotlight but like many great movies in that growing subgenre it never feels self-important. What we have here is a humanizing examination of its core characters reminding us that even as celebrities they too had their struggles during the Civil Rights movement although more on a personal level. “One Night in Miami” can be enjoyed as a celebration of these iconic men or as simply a sincere look into an affective, albeit fictionalized, interaction between four friends struggling to make positive change in different ways. Not matter which way you spin it, “One Night in Miami” is a fine bit of filmmaking introducing us to promising actors and Regina King’s capable skills behind the camera.