The Movie: One Night in Miami
Where You Can Stream It: Amazon Prime
The Pitch: On February 25, 1964, the respected and heavily favorited Word Champion Sonny Liston stepped into the ring with a brash, charismatically obnoxious fighter named Cassius Clay. Kemp Powers’ 2013 award-winning play imagines an evening spent after the surprise victory by the future Muhammed Ali with three of his friends – Nation of Islam leader Malcom X, soul singer Sam Cooke and NFL record breaker Jim Brown. In her directorial debut, Regina King takes Powers’ sophisticated and nuance look at these iconic individuals and, thanks to some exceptional performances, weaves a story that feels as remarkable today as ever.
Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: Eli Goree plays Clay/Ali with glorious physicality, capturing all the mugging and swagger of the man as well as his acute intelligence and ambivalent nature. Kingsley Ben-Adir provides the character of Malcolm X with the right balance of oratorical prowess and genuine unease given his impending break with the NOI. Aldis Hodge plays a quietly powerful Jim Brown, speaking with looks and glances as eloquently as many of his more loquacious friends, while Leslie Odom Jr. (known to many from his role in Hamilton) plays a pitch perfect Sam Cooke.
The film is produced in part by Abcko, owner of the rights to Cooke’s songs, and the label’s original maven Allan Klein has several references in the storyline. Whatever the complicated relationship is between that mecurial manager and the individuals that form the central quartet, it’s clear that the involvement of this branch of Universal Music allowed for Cooke’s songs to be included, allowing that aspect of the film to truly sing.
After introductions that feel as if they were tacked onto the existing one-act play, the film does settle into a claustrophic, highly theatrical one-room staging area. Credit to King and her cinematographer Tami Reiker, they do a lot with a little, never succumbing to the events feeling “stagey” rather than intimate.
There’s some joyful supporting cast from a pantheon of masterpiece television productions, including The Wire’s Lance Reddick and Lawrence Gillard Jr., as well as Sopranos veteran Michael Imperioli. Nicolette Robinson (Odom, Jr.’s wife) has a small role as Cooke’s spouse Barbara, while Joaquina Kalukango has one of the more challenging tasks in the role of Betty Shabaz, the often pained wife of Malcom. Beau Bridges also has a minor yet remarkable turn, providing the film its earliest of shocks.
For the first half of the film things unfold in relatively straightforward fashion, but when things take a serious turn the film is extremely effective at going beyond expectations. The disparate individuals debate with eloquence, and issues far too often considered in black or white ways are painted with elaborate shades of grey. Ben-Adir’s portrayal is the locus of such discussions, and its his own conflicts between idealism and reality that shake even the deepest held beliefs. Each man represents a constellation of points of view, and each in their own way helps effectively destroy any semblance of simplicity about their perspectives, a great lesson for those on any side of the political spectrum to applaud the disparate perspectives too often dismissed, while never forgetting the shared experiences and friendship that binds these individuals.
Regina King has made a career out of often astonishing performance of grace, power and nuance, so it’s no surprise that her gifts translate behind the camera. The film deftly allows the philosophically rich ideas and contradictions of these men to be explored without devolving into simple arrangements, demanding the audience sees the men behind the iconic personalities. The performances are rich and varied, the filmmaking brisk and watchable, and the storyline evocative and challenging. One Night In Miami provides an exemplary translation of the play to the big screen, and despite its small scope it makes this story of a champion and his friends feel particularly triumphant.
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/Film – ‘Slash Film: The Quarantine Stream: ‘One Night in Miami’ is Powerful, Triumphant, and Streaming Right Now’
Author: Jason Gorber
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January 29, 2021