Regina King holds four Emmys, an Oscar, and a Golden Globe for her acting work, but with her latest project, One Night in Miami..., she ventures into the world of directing for the big screen helping to guide a seductive, highly satisfying film. King is as confident and assured a filmmaker as she is in front of the camera and in doing so is making her contemporaries aware that she knows exactly what she’s doing.
The movie, an adaptation of Kemp Powers’ 2013 play of the same name, imagines what might have taken place on an evening in 1964 when Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, and Cassius Clay (four ridiculously famous Black men who happen to also be friends) met after Clay’s upset victory over Sonny Liston. The meeting actually happened in real life, but the film takes some poetic license in interpreting what might have taken place between these figures – each at a personal and professional crossroad that had larger significance for the burgeoning Civil Rights movement.
At the time, Malcolm X is about to leave the Nation of Islam; Cooke is a pop star with an increasingly messy personal life; Brown is leaving a stable career in the NFL for the instability of Hollywood, and Clay is at the precipice of becoming a cultural icon on one of the biggest nights of his life.
The heart and soul of the film is confined to one room, a gathering that Clay, Cooke, and Brown (played by Eli Goree, Leslie Odom Jr., and Aldis Hodge respectively) initially believe to be a fight afterparty orchestrated by Malcolm X (Kinglsey Ben-Adir). It’s hardly a turn up though. Instead, it’s a sober, serious affair in a bland suite with only ice cream to liven the mood.
Malcolm X’s real goal, the others soon realize, is to steward Clay towards a deeper, more public relationship with the Nation of Islam and, as it turns out, confront Cooke about his lack of activism too. The resulting tumult has the four engaging in a spirited debate, a particular exchange to Black men, about how to best benefit Black America. The ensuing conversation is philosophical, intense, occasionally vicious, and shockingly intimate as they reconcile their private lives with their beliefs and what they’re doing to support the struggle.
Much about One Night in Miami... works splendidly. Visually, it’s a lush, beautifully cohesive production, moving with a sense of discipline and sensuality that’s complemented by Terence Blanchard’s haunting jazz score. All four actors are terrific, but Goree and Ben-Adir are especially sublime; Goree as the cocksure, swaggy 22-year-old athlete on the cusp of immortality and Ben-Adir as the lacerating leader justifiably paranoid that he’s marked for death. Superior writing hints at the tragedies that will soon follow as Cooke will be killed months later, and Malcolm X murdered almost exactly a year after this summit. While the characters are unaware, the audience’s intuition allows the tension to remain tight. Deftly placed scenes outside of the room help illuminate external stakes and keep a sense of urgency alive and even relevant to today.
As Malcolm X forcefully insists that Cooke is wasting his talents on entertaining white audiences when he could be making protest music, he is then checked by Cooke, who by then created his own record label and had the receipts to prove economic freedom is the key to Black liberation. Though the era depicted is in the infancy stages of the Black Power movement, the film prompts the viewer to ask poignant questions that still don’t have clear answers, nearly six decades later. How do Black professionals and industry leaders most effectively use their platforms and voices? Should Black professionals seek advancement in mainstream institutions, or seek to create their own? How much of our own lives should we sacrifice for the greater good?
Under King’s exceptional command, One Night in Miami... runs on a simple premise, but is quietly complex and deceptively ambitious. Potential pitfalls abound; it’s a historical fantasy, for starters, with no sole hero to root for, and the highly recognizable protagonists require flawless interpretations from the film's actors. To boot, it’s a period piece demanding pitch-perfect retro realism, and the bulk of the action is just a conversation in one room. Even so, King makes it feel grounded and real, suspenseful and seamlessly smooth. By its triumphant end, which has Odom Jr shake the Earth as Sam Cooke, One Night in Miami... proves to be one of the year’s most rewarding films, and a work that cements Regina King as a bona fide creative visionary.
One Night in Miami... opens in select theaters on Jan. 8, 2021 before launching on Amazon Prime Video on Jan. 15, 2021.
Malcolm Venable is an entertainment journalist and screenwriter. He is based in Los Angeles.