London Film Festival 2020 is running from October 2nd through to October 19th, and I’ll be variously covering a few films from the event this year…
On one calm evening in 1964, in the heart of Miami, four men gathered who would, in their own way, influence not just black culture but 20th century American history.
One Night in Miami… is that story, the ellipsis at the end of the title in service of the urban fable that such a confluence suggests. This quartet reflect four quadrants of experience as the Civil Rights movement was gathering steam in counter-cultural America, each overlapping the other. Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), founder of the Nation of Islam and black power scion; Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), the self-proclaimed greatest boxer there ever is, ever was or ever will be, on the verge of Muslim conversion; Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), NFL linebacker and legend who has grown weary of his path; and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr), one of the greatest voices in soul who ever lived, currently trapped within a sphere of white middle-class appeasement he cannot escape.
Regina King’s debut feature is a contained night in the life; a reckoning between four black cultural and political titans heading in the same direction while treading very different roads to get there.
One Night in Miami… began life as a play from writer Kemp Powers, who adapts his work for King’s film while retaining the central stage-based core of the story.
King does have the freedom, in the first act, to establish these characters before their fateful night together on February 25th.
Malcolm is challenged by his wife Betty (Joaquina Kalukango) over the risks he is taking for his cause, afraid for him and their family, but Malcolm is resolved; Cassius reels after a punishing defeat by British boxer Henry Cooper but resolves to prove his brilliance against Sonny Liston (the fight being the cause of the men gathering in Miami in the first place); Jim aspires to the acting profession and learns that despite veneration for his athletic skill in his native Georgia, he nonetheless faces institutionalised racism keeping him in his place; while Sam, seeking approval from the same white America that oppressed his forefathers, grapples with the meaning behind his music.
The film then becomes a reflection of cultural Americana bound through four central performances which contrast, ebb and flow within each other, and King—who shows a quiet deftness and technical skill as she marshals a period setting around these characters—wisely allows her stars to hold court, her camera working to illuminate their looks, body language and words as their night of friendships develops into a lacerating, personal confrontation with truth, not just about themselves and one another but modern black America; indeed modern black America, metaphorically, as of today not just the ‘60s, a decade we are finding common cause with. This private reckoning works in microcosm in place of a broader context.
Conflict arises, centrally, not just about race but about their place within the black story. A tragic pallor casts over Malcolm, given we know his sad destiny to soon come, and Ben-Adir lends him a complicated grace (interestingly, the actor recently played Barack Obama in HBO’s The Comey Rule, so it’s a two for one for him on singular black Americans with Muslim ties who had major influence on culture and politics). He works to convert Cassius, soon to be Muhammad Ali, while facing the hypocrisy behind some of his sermonising when chickens come home to roost. Jim is the calming element, where Cassius’s ego can never be, between Malcolm and Sam – the focal point for the argument on expectations. Malcolm wants Sam to stop appeasing the white man. Sam points out that Malcolm’s fervour could be their undoing. Both men, in degrees, are right.
Here lies the lesson of One Night in Miami… and the point of Powers’s story. There is no one true way.
Lives, cultures and movements are complicated, flawed and necessary, and King’s film resonates acutely in a year of prominence for Black Lives Matter (and their less palatable, conservative opposites) as a point of self-analysis. These men stop, talk, thrash out differences that go beyond personality. They start friends and they end friends. This is never a melodrama in which personal issues get in the way, yet it remains about character, and what these important figures to the black story of America in the 20th century say about their world, and ours. Discussion, reflection and consideration leads to change, because every single one of these men move beyond their night in Miami by asserting an agency over their lives and doing what they believe is right. That surely seems the message to take away.
Suggesting Regina King is a talent to watch behind the camera, not just before it, One Night in Miami… is a fine addition to a growing lexicon of black stories which are both important to our cultural moment and well mounted pieces of drama in their own right.
One Night in Miami… will be available on Amazon Prime in January 2021.
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