Regina King makes waves. Between her Oscar winning role in If Beale Street Could Talk to her powerful play in the HBO series Watchmen, her choices are growing increasingly iconic. What better story to pick then as her feature film directorial debut then a story about four of histories icons? One Night in Miami is an empowering, striking tale of four legends, each men of impeccable skill and charisma and a story that, once it reaches its crescendo, sings some clearly superb notes. While not an immediately gripping watch, the film, as time passes, becomes increasingly engaging, but it takes having all four men in the same room to set the spark that’s been hinted at ablaze.
A fictional account of a real night, the film drops us into the moments after Eli Goree’s Cassius Clay’s (soon to be The Greatest Muhammad Ali) defeat of Sonny Liston in 1964. Afterwards, the boxer meets with Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) who has become something of a mentor to him along with singer Sam Cookie (Leslie Odom Jr.) and the NFL superstar Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) to discuss the state of the country, their hopes of changing the course of history in the segregated South and the abilities and status they possess to enact forward momentum in the cause. Based on the stage play of the same name by its original writer Kemp Powers (writer and director of Pixar’s upcoming Soul), there’s no escaping the framework of its original home on stage. For the first hour the success of this comes off as hit or miss, with singular scenes and/or characters benefitting more so than others from this style of storytelling – with Kingsley Ben-Adir making a meal of each and every scene he’s in. It’s the second half where the slow build pays off and all four join in a single room where their moods turn from celebratory, to hostile, accusatory, and melancholic in a moment’s notice. The scenes where their moods combust and old frustrations come rearing their ugly heads is where magic is found on screen. It’s when the four really come alive.
There’s an impenetrably claustrophobic effect to the filmmaking in the first act, making the moment where the group stands atop the roof of the building the film’s first cathartic act because it allows us to breathe with the characters. King has a strict eye for tremendously composed frames placing her actors directly center with the lush sets overwhelming them, something noticeable as tempters mount. The use of space is especially notable in a contentious and maddening back and forth between Sam Cooke and Malcolm X, a scene in which the latter lambasts the singer for failing to do his due diligence as a Black man of influence to better tell their story and do more for their fight for equality. Both they, Cassius Clay and Jim Brown are given ample opportunities to lead the conversation – all allowed glimpses of retrospection, fault, introspection and pride. The script by Powers is a fair one, where Malcolm can talk unwaveringly about needing to weaponize their powers to the greatest of their ability only for Brown to cut it down a moment after a moment of quiet resignation, saying:
“We are not anyone’s weapons, Malcolm.”
A moment of affecting sobriety, one that seems to level Malcolm too, it’s disarming in how it seems to bring Malcolm back to earth after he’s chased two of his friends out of the room. It’s an example of how Ben-Adir is the revelation here. All four men do wonderful work, and Hodge in particular brings a level of dignified and worn gravitas to his part that you can’t help but wish he’d had more time, but it all is near eclipsed by the exceptional work Ben-Adir is doing. There’s a barefaced vulnerability to his depiction as Malcolm X – a deep weariness that makes his moments of indignation hit with force. All of One Night in Miami is an example of anger that transcends time, truth and art, a powerful story about four men at the height or start of their true prowess, each of whom were still battling forces outside of their control in a country built by racism that has never fully reckoned with it.
The film allowed the powder keg to build for too long to be as fully triumphant as one might hope, but King and Powers have created an earned and celebratory story of Black brilliance while allowing us to witness what lies beneath the masks of fame, notoriety and influences. Even when the film ends and we are given glimpses into what is to follow for the four men, there’s a moment where you want the film to keep going to continue tracking their lives – so engaged by then are we in the stories told. Its greatest moments are astonishing and it’s a shame that not all of the film matches the confidence of the second act, because it’s in those moments where the legacies of these four men are given a proper, exultant stage.