Regina King’s One Night In Miami has a fascinating approach to iconography. It anachronistically re-stages Muhammad Ali’s famous underwater photo by Flip Schulke three years after it actually happened, in order to move the photography session to the day of his historic fight with Sonny Liston. This is the day the film takes place, unfolding largely in real time in and around a single hotel room after the bout. The film, by creating a proximity between the photo and Ali’s poolside strategizing about the optics of Malcom X accompanying him to the fight, invites us on an imaginary journey through moments that unfolded in between historic photographs, conjuring questions about the lived realities behind the curtain of recorded history. It even places a camera in Malcolm’s hands throughout much of the film.
King and screenwriter Kemp Powers — upon whose play the film is based — fictionalize a real-life meeting between civil rights leader Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), NFL player-turned actor Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and boxing champion Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), who was still going by Cassius Clay at the time. The filmmaking is precise, shifting narrative point-of-view subtly and deftly between its four leads, but its biggest strength is the way it enhances each performance — especially that of Ben-Adir, who explores Malcolm X through body language and a series of gestures.
The first hints of this physical approach appear prior to the Liston fight, where Malcolm, a Muslim minister, leads prize fighter Ali in salah or daily prayer. In this private moment, the boisterous Ali (played by a scenery-chomping Goree) becomes calm and centered, thanks in large part to Malcolm’s tutelage. Sunlight peeks around the hotel curtains like some holy presence, matched by the tender fatherly guidance provided by Malcolm as he teaches Ali the right posture, and the correct way to fold his hands, a gesture upon which the camera lingers.
Terence Blanchard’s score makes ethereal not only both men’s connection to Allah, but to each other; One Night In Miami is the rare Hollywood production to present Islam as a calming spiritual force, one which formed the backbone of Ali’s and Malcolm’s political struggles, and it allows this calm to manifest in the form of physical mannerism. The film presents these characters at the nexus of historical change, with Ali on the verge of joining the Nation of Islam and Malcolm about to leave it (citing a militant approach by which he can no longer abide). But this isolated prayer scene temporarily hits the pause button on the movement of history, allowing both men a moment of respite. It’s a silent crossroads that strips them down to their basics, as men in search of peace of mind — the film often refers to liberation from racism as the freedom to be oneself — and the scene’s framing creates an eloquent moment that cuts to the heart of both men’s struggles, and their doubts about their place in history.
Doubt is a central theme running throughout the film, and for Malcolm X, the need for staunch political comrades is more urgent than he lets on. He senses death lurking around every corner (a paranoia which Ben-Adir captures as subtle glances towards doors and windows), leading Malcolm to question his own legacy and the world he leaves behind.
The other characters cut him down to size for his inability to accept their differing paths, and for blurring the lines between his public and private personas. They even lament the fact that his anger at the world means he’s no longer as fun as he used to be! However, this isn’t the film holding Malcolm to account for some historical slight; rather, it’s a way to make him feel human and familiar (We all have that friend, or have been that friend, who steers the conversation towards politics when people just want to relax). If One Night In Miami holds its fictitious Malcolm to account for anything, it’s only that which the real Malcolm would eventually hold himself to account, resulting in a less rigid approach after splitting from The Nation. The film dramatizes the final step on his journey towards Sunnism, as his friendship with these other Black icons widens his perspective on how best to approach the struggle for civil rights. But before he arrives at that point, he must find the answer a vital question:
Who is Malcolm X?
Google the man and you’ll find numerous pictures portraying his iconic hand gesture: an index finger on his cheek, near his temple or near an open eye — as if he were a perpetual thinker, whose wheels constantly turned as he verbalized the nuances of Black oppression and awoke many a consciousness to the plight of African Americans. Denzel Washington, who played Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s 1992 film, even immortalized the gesture on screen.
Ben-Adir’s performance uses this gesture to make physical the burning internal questions plaguing Malcolm at this point in his life. The gesture appears and re-appears in different permutations — as it did in real life, like during Malcom’s 1963 Berkeley interview — and is frequently echoed when Ben-Adir rests his hand on his cheek. It has no singular meaning in the film, and it often appears when Malcolm hopes to embody, in private, the stringent public persona which made him famous, as if it were a sign of intellect, or perhaps even comfort with his physical self. But the gesture also appears in moments of intense doubt, contemplation, exhaustion and unease, as if to make inseparable Malcolm X the icon and Malcolm X the conflicted human being.
Even the scene in the phone booth, when Malcolm glances over at men he believes to be FBI agents while he speaks to his wife, sees him holding the phone almost unnaturally, with his index finger extended over it, as if Ben-Adir were re-creating the gesture on instinct. In this moment, he finds himself most torn between Malcolm X the husband and Malcom X the political target.
Ben-Adir captures these conflicts of identity with a nuanced touch, one so enticing that it’s impossible to look away whenever he’s on screen. He draws the camera’s gaze each time he lets his composure slip, and with something so simple as where he rests his hand, he explores the relationship of Malcolm X to himself, and to the world around him. His Malcom is a mystery that slowly unravels itself, the way the film unravels its perspective on the past. It takes American icons and strips them down to flesh and blood, making familiar — and deeply personal — the pages of history.
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/Film – ‘Slash Film: How Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Performance in ‘One Night in Miami’ Transforms a Historical Icon Into Flesh-and-Blood’
Author: Siddhant Adlakha
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February 26, 2021