TIFF 2020 – One Night in Miami (2020)

Directed by: Regina King. Starring: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr. Runtime: 1h 54 min. Released: This film premiered at TIFF on September 11, 2020 as part of the Gala Presentations.

Regina King’s One Night in Miami is set on a night in February 1964 when Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), soon to-be known as Muhammad Ali, has just become heavyweight champion of the world. He celebrates with real-life friends; minister Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), legendary fullback Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and pop singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.).

A fictionalized night based on real events, this film hooks from its introductions. We see the characters doing what they do best – Clay fighting, Sam singing (at the Copacabana), Malcolm X speaking. Strangely, instead of playing football we meet Jim Brown on a porch speaking with a white benefactor called Mr. Carlton (Beau Bridges), where the banter is quick and the dialogue entertaining, as they speak to each other like old friends because of Jim’s fame. Then, Carlton drops a bomb, reminding Jim him that he is Black and Mr. Carlton is white. He says what he says so casually and with a laugh that it is shocking given the dynamic 15 seconds before.

This small, but huge moment, sets the tone for the film and for critical conversations later. Since this is based on Kemp Powers’ 2013 play of the same name, the power of the film naturally lies solely with the dialogue and performances. Neither disappoint. For a film to be based on a play, the film has so much energy through characters and Regina King’s direction. A lot of the energy comes from Eli Goree as Cassius Clay. He’s riotous and fun; constantly looking himself in the mirror and asking, “Why am I so pretty?” The casting of Goree is solid here, as his smile and energy are both infectious.

The boxing scenes in the first half are very well-directed by King, showcasing the early days of Muhammad Ali. The banter in the film between everyone is charming, too, though some moments in the first half feel slower to me. This is mostly when they talk about the Nation of Islam, as that isn’t a topic I was invested in as I didn’t fully understand the significance of it. It is a huge part of the story, though, and when all four men discuss it, there’s some great humour injected into it.

One Night in Miami
Kingsley Ben-Adir, Aldis Hodge, Eli Goree and Leslie Odom Jr. in One Night in Miami. (Courtesy of TIFF.)

The group banters and looks for a place to party, eventually staying in the motel room when the discussions become more passionate. This happens in the second half when they discuss what it means to be Black; and from this point on, the film is completely compelling.

Malcolm X believes everyone should use their fame and position to help the Civil Rights Movement and the Black movement, and he thinks Sam Cooke can do so much more with his voice than simply pander to white people. “Cassius pushes us forward with his fists and words,” challenges Malcolm. “Jim pushes us forward with his fearlessness.” He is not sure what Sam does for them, but knows what he’s capable of, later saying, “You could move mountains without moving a finger.”

Malcolm pushing Sam so hard has an air of arrogance, which is well-portrayed by Kingsley Ben-Adir in a performance that embodies Malcolm X, but you can truly feel the weight of everything on his shoulders. It’s an anxious time in his life and you can feel just how passionate he is about the movement and helping Black people. Malcolm doesn’t mean this from a place of arrogance. It is desperation.

The way music seeps into this conversation and how certain songs can help the advancement of Black people, compels. I don’t want to spoil much more about this aspect, but it is so thought-provoking while also just being incredible because of the acting. Leslie Odom Jr. as Cooke is great as he spars with Malcolm X. His singing voice is amazing, too, bringing his talents from Hamilton, and a moment near the end of the film blew me away.

This whole stretch is lively with amazing conversation, and is my favourite stretch of the film as the dialogue never feels repetitive and always finds new angles. This is when the film flows seamlessly, too, and before I knew it about 40 minutes had passed and the film was nearly over.

Kemp Powers’ writing makes all these conversations feel so relevant today, which is a great feat. He also makes all these historical and influential figures feel so layered, and that’s especially the case for Jim Brown, as well. Aldis Hodge has the least out-spoken performance in the film, fine to sit back and watch and observe. Jim Brown’s moments are smaller, like the scene with Mr. Carlton in the film’s opening act, as Brown has an interesting angle into how he’s treated being in the NFL where he was currently the best running back in the NFL.

I won’t spoil that aspect, but his conversations compel just as much as the others. It’s an ensemble cast where the four core performers all carry the film with relative ease, and Regina King gets the most from her actors and then some. She makes the great storytelling and acting feel so effortless, and that is hard to do. Her first feature film doesn’t disappoint and I am so excited to see what story she will take on next.

Score: 88/100

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