african-american directors series/geezer cinema/film fatales #106: one night in miami (regina king, 2020)
Many times I have said that while one great performance in a movie shows how good an actor is, when the entire cast comes through, it says something good about the director. All four of the key actors in One Night in Miami are excellent: Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X), Eli Goree (Cassius Clay), Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown), and Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam Cooke). Credit to all, but also tip your cap to director Regina King, who elicits those performances in one of her earliest works as a director. (It seems like many want to call this her debut as a director, but she has done a lot of TV, including a couple of features ... One Night in Miami is her first feature to play in theaters, or it would be if movies were in theaters right now.) The point is, King is no amateur, but ultimately it's beside the point: the film has great performances across the board and she directed it.
The setup, with a screenplay by Kemp Powers from his own stage play, is perfect. Four important American black men meet in a hotel room. The event took place in real life, but no one knows what happened in that room. So Powers can pretty much do whatever he wants. If he strayed too far from what we know of the four men, he would be called on that, but as long as he is honest in his portraits of the four, we are willing to be taken for a ride. Indeed, all four resemble what we imagine the real people were like, and the play is believable on that level. There are things missing ... we get no hint of Brown's problems with domestic violence, for instance ... and the timeline sometimes moves a bit away from what/how things really happened. But Powers gets to make his points about what it meant to be an African-American male in the early-60s without going too far afield.
Besides working with the actors, King has to deal with the staginess of the material, and she does a decent job, moving conversations out of the hotel room on occasion without being obvious about it. You never lose sight of the stage origins, but she avoids the problems that sometimes accompany stage-to-movie productions.
It can't be overemphasized how terrific the main performances are. I'm hard pressed to single out one over the others ... I'm hard pressed to figure out which characters are major and which are minor (I'd say they are all major), and it will be interesting come awards time which of the four end up in the running for Best Actor awards and which will be presented as Best Supporting Actor. But Malcolm X is probably the most interesting of the characters ... he's the one whose interactions with the other three are key to what we learn about all of the men. So it's possible that Kingsley Ben-Adir will contest the Best Actor awards, while the others, especially Leslie Odom Jr., will turn up in Supporting Actor lists. All of the actors have to deal with the fact that at least some of the audience remembers the actual people, so Odon Jr., for instance, isn't just playing a part in a movie, he's competing with our image of Sam Cooke. This is always the case with biopics and their ilk, of course. Ben-Adir and Goree have a double conundrum, because they are not only dealing with the images of Malcolm and Clay, but also of the indelible performances of Denzel Washington in Spike Lee's Malcolm X and Will Smith as the title character in Ali. Both actors are good enough so that, if we don't exactly forget about Washington and Smith, we accept these new and different interpretations of the characters.
The pacing is a bit uneven, with some scenes going on a bit too long (the "dispute" between Malcolm and Cooke being the most noteworthy example), but every scene matters, and even though in the end One Night in Miami boils down to four men talking to each other for a couple of hours, King keeps us from noticing the talkiness, varying the focus on the characters so nothing feels static. It's a fine job, one that makes you hunger for more films directed by King.
I can't resist one last note that is irrelevant, but I can't help myself. None of the four stars are unknowns, but Eli Goree is the closest to a new-to-us performer. Yet at our house, he is known for his work on The 100, and it was a delight to see him in a major role in a major motion picture. Here's a short scene of him in The 100: