History is concretely objective and clear: it is defined by what happened, when, where, and how. Yet, there’s something about that latter portion, the how, that doesn’t feel so cemented. Yes, we can point to events that lie on the timeline leading to revolutions, and we can identify the individuals that stood in their vanguards, but it’s the thought processes and behind-closed-doors conversations, that despite their equal importance, will forever be a mystery. What internal conflicts lie in the identities and movements, in the faces and figures, of which we feel so familiar? One Night in Miami, Regina King’s debut feature film, proffers this proposition, pressing the audience to witness and absorb all the ways in which Blackness and Black success is defined and confounded, tying the common threads together and allowing the stragglers to bluntly dangle before our eyes.
One Night in Miami follows Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) on the evening following Clay’s victory against Sonny Liston. The group spends the majority of their night within a motel room, surveying the realities of 1960s America, expounding on their own motivations, and discussing what it means to be a successful Black man, and even more greatly, what it takes to be a Black progressive. The source material, Kemp Powers’ play of the same name, is readily apparent in the film’s format, which gloriously relies on dialogue and passionate interaction between the actors. There is no ultra-large scope in One Night in Miami — no magnificent crane shots, wild party scenes, or intense and dramatic sequences of action — only stunning intimacy.
The heavy lean into structuring the film within a single location forces us to become members of the conversation. We can’t escape the bounds of the room, nor can we evade the implications of their discussion. We are immersed and invested, compelled to listen and engage — to question our own notions, to toss the expectation that comes with being a symbol to society, and instead to render these men as candidly imperfect, yet still utterly justified despite the disagreements.
Bridging the topics of religion, economic freedom, catering to white acceptance, colourism, and individualism v. collectivism, not a single stone is left unturned in the inquisition of Blackness and the hypocrisy that comes with thinking it lies within a singular set of bounds. The expertly crafted parley between the men sees them playing devil’s advocate for one another, pulling no punches as they fearlessly nick at each other’s strengths and sanctimonies. The more time we spend in the space of King’s creation, the more we have to consider. How was Malcolm X’s light skinned complexion a benefit to him in the movement? How did Sam Cooke’s wealth affect his perspective?
Among the claustrophobia of the suite and the tension of leaping between argument and reconciliation, the world-building itself is a comfort — a capsule of time that doesn’t feel distant, but lovingly nostalgic. The richness of the cinematography (by Tami Reiker) is delectable, with warmth and luminance coloring spirit and passion into each and every frame. The camera often lingers on the faces of the men as they pour their souls into their conversation: their perspectives, their pain, their pride. The portraiture itself is remarkable, filling the frames in a way that doesn’t only beg us to scan the faces of men we’ve seen photographed a million times, but to take a live look into their eyes and absorb their souls vicariously through the actors who’ve brought them back to life.
One Night in Miami, above all else, is helmed by its performances. The chemistry between Goree, Ben-Adir, Hodge, and Odom Jr. grounds itself with an unshakable footing that expertly contrives the intimacy, hostility, and levity that runs through every honest, important relationship, especially in the consequential time in which the film takes place. All the anger they feel is executed perfectly, as we can always palpably feel that it’s out of love and care and passion, never aggression.
Despite each embodying an individual of their own right, the ensemble flows as a unit of which every moving part is indispensable. Ben-Adir’s performance as Malcolm X incarnates a quiet, but quarreling consternation that attempts to shield itself behind a thin veil of feigned composure. We see both sides of this coin through his eyes and body language as he masterfully manifests this conflict into tangibility. He is both placid and jagged. Goree is the film’s light. Though we see Clay in pain, he’s also often the one to bring us out of it. He skillfully echoes the rhythm and tone of the boxer’s famous voice, and delivers both the levity and the bite of Cassius Clay with amusing accuracy.
One Night in Miami is a film of pure, unadulterated passion. It bleeds with adulation for Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and everything that made them: Blackness, love, and hope. The film gives unflinching context to the fact that the influence of the individuals that have made strides and pulled tides for Black progress is timeless and unabridged, yet intensely complex. It deepens our knowledge of the men we believed we knew, giving us insight into not only what they symbolize, but who they were. What these men represented — music, sports, entertainment, and activism — is not itself the microphone, but Blackness is. It’s something people still can’t come to terms with (think Kaepernick for one) but Blackness is an existence and a promise that’s never ending, never shaking, and never silent.