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Contributing to the cause – ‘One Night in Miami’

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Sometimes, you watch a movie and are satisfied. Other times, you’re disappointed. The vast majority of the time, that’s where you live. But it is the movies on the margins that tend to stick with you. To be clear, that’s on either end – a terrible movie will linger just as a brilliant one will. But when you find those films on the ends of your personal spectrum, it’s a reminder of just why we love movies in the first place.

Firmly ensconced on the brilliant end of that spectrum, you’ll find “One Night in Miami,” currently available on Amazon Prime Video.

The film marks the directorial debut of Regina King, with a screenplay that Kemp Powers adapted from his own stage play of the same name. It is an imagining of what took place when four Black icons – legends – came together in a hotel room in Miami one night in 1964. Inspired by true events, it is an exploration of responsibility, both of a man to himself and of an idol to his community. It is a powerful, emotionally charged dive into the Black experience during the civil rights battle – one that shows that there is more than one way to fight.

With a quartet of transcendent performances at its core, “One Night in Miami” is a wildly compelling and provocative piece of filmmaking, the sort of movie from which it proves almost impossible to wrench your eyes. Challenging and unapologetic, it is cinematic dynamite.

On February 25, 1964, young boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree, TV’s “Riverdale”) defeats Sonny Liston in Miami to become the heavyweight champion of the world. The eyes of that world are on the city, but few have access to what would become a legendary meeting of Black cultural heroes.

Malcolm X (Kinglsey Ben-Adir, TV’s “High Fidelity”) is dealing with an internal struggle amidst the external struggle, making plans to break ties with the controversial Nation of Islam organization and – he hopes – taking the eager-to-convert Clay with him. To that end, he has made arrangements for a rendezvous at his hotel following the fight, a meeting of the minds that will include not just the newly-crowned champion, but a couple of heavyweights in their own right – the football player Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge, “The Invisible Man”) and the soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr., “Hamilton”).

Malcolm’s guests arrive expecting a party, but what they find is a much more sober affair. Specifically, a lengthy and at times contentious conversation about the role of fame in the civil rights movement. Each of these men – brilliant within the parameters of their vocation – has a different view of the responsibility each bears to advancing the cause. For stretches, those differing views uneasily coexist before outbursts of anger or defensiveness or derision leap to the forefront.

Over the course of this fateful night, these men use one another as sounding boards and confidantes, working through their own complex feelings with regard to their place in the world and what – if anything – they owe for that privilege of place.

The film is bookended by snapshots of each man’s life in the moment. At the beginning, we’re given a sense of where each of them stand before the titular night. At the end, we see the aftermath of that evening’s conversation, the impact that it had on them all.

“One Night in Miami” is an absolutely exceptional viewing experience, one driven by as good a collection of performances as we’ve seen in years. It is thoughtful and thought-provoking, pushing to the forefront a reminder of just how far we have come … and how far we still have to go. So few films have the capability to lodge themselves so thoroughly into your mind, your heart AND your soul simultaneously, but here we are.

All this, by the way, from a first-time director. Regina King is best known for her excellence in front of the camera – she’s got four Emmys and an Academy Award to her name – but her talents have clearly translated to the director’s chair. She turns what is largely a static story into something undeniably kinetic, creating motion where little motion would seem possible. She knows when to pump the brakes and – thankfully – when to let her cast cook. To make such striking, bold choices for her debut feature, from the source material on down, is so audaciously impressive – don’t be surprised if she’s got a shot at adding some more statuary to the collection.

And let’s talk about that source material. Playwright Kemp Powers adapted his own stage script for the screen here, which means that the person who best understands the story as it plays out not just narratively but physically is in charge of translating it from one medium to the other. Adapting theatrical works to the big screen is always a roll of the dice – when it doesn’t work, it REALLY doesn’t work – but in this case, it’s a seamless transition. If you’ve got to find ways to move a stage performance’s inherent insularity to the screen effectively, to open things up while also maintaining the intimacy of live theatre, well – it’s handy to have the guy who wrote it handling things.

The obvious comparison here is “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the recent Netflix effort adapted from the great August Wilson’s play. And it’s an apt one. In terms of narrative, it’s a story of Black people finding ways to exploit and weaponize their fame in the face of a world that views them as less than. In terms of production, it shares the challenge of moving an intimate piece from stage to screen. Personally, I think “One Night in Miami” is ever-so-slightly the better movie, but it’s VERY close – I’m certainly not going to fight you if you believe it to be vice versa.

So – the performances. Good God, the performances.

This film is essentially an ensemble piece, defined by its core quartet. Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X is probably the closest thing this film has to a lead, but the reality is that none of this works without each of these four actors excelling. Ben-Adir is brilliant, capturing both the blue-hot fire of Malcolm X’s rhetoric and the more quiet, contemplative man behind the scenes. His passion is palpable throughout, a mesmerizing blend of true belief and simmering rage. Goree is frankly incredible as the young Cassius Clay; he not only captures the mannerisms and speech patterns of the champ (seriously, it is uncanny), but also manages to push beyond them, keeping the performance from becoming merely an excellent impression. Clay’s amiability and malleability are front and center. Odom Jr. is absolutely perfect for Sam Cooke; not only is the actor more than capable of portraying the multitudes contained within a man who has to dance on a knife’s edge to maintain his success, but the dude can SING. And as Jim Brown, Hodge imposes himself onto the proceedings with the unique combination of physical prowess and agile grace that allowed the man such success on both the football field and the sound stage, all while bringing forward Brown’s own understanding of the roots of his triumphs. And as a group? Forget about it – just incredible.

There are some interesting performances from the rest of the supporting cast – Lance Reddick as Malcolm X’s bodyguard Kareem and Michael Imperioli as legendary boxing trainer Angelo Dundee are both great, while Beau Bridges and his daughter Emily shine in their singular scene – but let’s be real: this movie is all about the four figures at the center of it all.

It is rare for a film to have even one brilliant performance; “One Night in Miami” has four. The power of those performances – along with the steady hand of King behind the camera and the spectacular script written by Kemp Powers – gives us a cinematic experience the likes of which we don’t often see. Watch this movie. It’ll be a night you will never forget.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 18 January 2021 17:51


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