by Brodie Zeigler
Graphic by Jackie Veliz
One Night In Miami…, Academy Award-winning actress Regina King has made the transition from working in front of the camera, to behind it. Based on the one-act play by Kemp Powers, who also wrote the screenplay for the film, One Night in Miami… documents the night of February 25, 1964, a night that proved to change the course of four lives. This night in Southern Florida was shared by African-American icons, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, and Jim Brown. Perhaps King bit off more than she could chew by taking on the story of these four African American icons in her directorial debut, but if there was a time to bite, it was now. The story behind One Night in Miami… is one of bravery, passion, and resistance, all of which we’ve seen this year as a nation.
Before he was Muhammad Ali, he was Cassius Clay, a young boxer exploding onto the scene while struggling to find out where his faith lay. Guiding Cassius towards the Nation of Islam was Malcolm X, who was dealing with his spot in the Nation himself. Still riding off of the success of “You Send Me,” Sam Cooke found himself celebrating with Cassius and Malcolm in Miami while trying to find his place amidst the civil rights protests. The celebration would have been incomplete without Jim Brown, high off his record-shattering season in the NFL, and his first role in a feature film. Unable to leave their conflicts outside the walls of the hotel room, these four men faced their issues one by one, only to leave the room changed forever.
One Night In Miami… begins with the illustration of the conflict that these men still faced in their day to day lives, despite their success. Flooded with rich colors, and vibrant lighting, One Night In Miami… is able to retain a cinematic tone despite its very theatrical structure. However, it’s the adaptation of stage to screen that ends up being the downfall of One Night In Miami… as the screenplay isn’t strong enough to warrant a film that is entirely centered around dialogue. The overwhelming majority of the film takes place in a singular location and is told through conversations between the four main characters. While this works in films like 12 Angry Men and the Before Trilogy, the screenplays behind those films are capable of keeping the interest of the viewer throughout the entire runtime. The dialogue and performances can’t keep One Night In Miami… from becoming, at times, mundane.
Considering it was King’s debut and she may not know how to work with actors yet, two performances surprised me and stood out above the rest. Kingsley Ben-Adir, who plays Malcolm X, and Leslie Odom Jr, who plays Sam Cooke, are fantastic. Odom Jr.’s voice leaps from the screen, but it is Ben-Adir, and his magnificent portrayal of Malcolm X less than a year before his assassination, who delivers the most powerful moments of the film. One Night In Miami… examines what it meant to be a part of the struggle against racial injustice during the 1960s, and who can determine if someone is doing enough to help in it. Kingsley Ben-Adir is able to convey the consequences of an almost blinding passion, giving an immense vulnerability and drive to his character. However, these two great performances are a testament to the actor’s talent, rather than King’s direction, as Joaquina Kalukango and Eli Goree give dishearteningly weak performances. Playing Betty Shabbez and Cassius Clay respectively, Kalukango and Goree stick out like a sore thumb in their shared scenes with Ben-Adir and Odom Jr.
King’s unrefined direction is additionally apparent in the dramatization of certain scenes and plots. Some of the film feels very on-the-nose, especially the praying scene in Malcolm X’s hotel room, and the way that King handles the religious subplot. The storyline of Malcolm X’s transition away from the Nation of Islam, while Cassius Clay was deciding whether or not he wanted to join it, was handled oddly throughout the film. The character’s decisions aren’t explored enough for them to be profound or moving, and the ending feels a little rushed. The film’s emotion truly comes from the performances, the characters behind them, and the story itself. King doesn’t establish a distinct directorial style. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, she doesn’t allow herself to stand out, something that a directorial debut should do.
In the end, however abrupt it may be, One Night In Miami… does deliver on the promise that this sort of film makes. While Sam Cooke finds his voice and sings “A Change Is Gonna Come” from the heart, there’s an undeniable feeling of inspiration and admiration this film evokes. Jim Brown’s decision to pursue acting and the birth of Muhammad Ali concludes One Night in Miami…. It’s the people behind the film who had a lasting impact, however, and there are too many issues of substance for the film to deliver one as well.