VOD film review: One Night in Miami
James R | On 15, Jan 2021
Director: Regina King
Cast: Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Leslie Odom Jr
Watch One Night in Miami online in the UK: Amazon Prime
There are directorial debuts, and there are directorial debuts. Regina King’s is the latter, as she brings Kemp Powers’ stage play of the same name to the screen. The film is as simple as it is beautifully layered, telling the imagined story of what happened after Cassius Clay won his world heavyweight title in 1964.
The 22-year-old boxer spends the night with his friends, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke. It frames the four men as they all face decisions about the direction their lives will take. For Jim, it’s whether to move from sports into acting. For Cassius, it’s whether to join the Nation of Islam, just at the point when Malcolm is working out his own relationship with the movement – and challenging Sam to join the cause of changing society through his chart-topping music.
The cast are all deserving of awards, disappearing into roles that could have seemed unconvincing and sinking their teeth into dialogue that in other hands could risk becoming laboured. Eli Goree is dazzlingly confident as Ali, contrasted nicely with Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown, who is both intense and amusingly lightweight. At the heart of the ensemble, Kingsley Ben-Adir is brilliantly pensive as Malcolm X, balancing a searching inner gaze with a charismatic drive to encourage those around him – while Malcolm is increasingly disenchanted with the Nation of Islam, he’s no less galvanised about the civil rights battle that’s right on their doorstep. Ben-Adir burrows into Malcolm’s intellect but also lets the rest of the ensemble shine.
That’s most evident in the case of Leslie Odom Jr’s Sam Cooke. The always-excellent Odom Jr, who has impressed in everything from Smash and Harriet to Hamilton and Central Park, is unrecognisable as the singer-songwriter, whose conviction in his own talent is backed up by his certainty on how he has used it. While Malcolm berates him for selling out by focusing on romantic soul crooning, Cooke highlights how he he formed a record label that supports other Black musicians, forging a business and future in an industry that otherwise treats them and their voices as commodities.
But this is a conversation not a lecture, and a debate in which nobody ultimately wins – Powers’ script is thoughtful enough not only to raise such questions but also let them linger for audiences to consider as much as the characters. All of this might sound heavy-handed or stagey, but Regina King’s direction brings both a compelling intimacy and a visual prowess that belies the film’s theatrical origins. It’s as dynamic and stylish when we’re just sitting and listening to Bob Dylan as when we’re swooping through a corridor or peering out from a telephone box.
And yet King never distracts from her impeccable ensemble, as their characters acknowledge the responsibilities they have in opening up a wider conversation about racial prejudice. The result is a rich meditation on public and political influence, one that finds tearful catharsis and uplifting hope in Sam Cooke’s songwriting, joy in friendship and strength in camaraderie – and, underpinning it all, electrifying challenge in the reminder that we all have a part to play in making the world a better, more equal place. A profound, masterful debut.
One Night in Miami is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.