It’s no surprise that Regina King’s new film on Amazon Prime, One Night in Miami, is a confident and gentle accomplishment. She has been directing episodes in TV with shows such as This is Us and Insecure for years and has transposed her skills as an award-winning actress into a delectable film director.
In her feature debut, King explores a fictionalized account of what happened when four successful black friends come together one night to talk about life, fame, and accountability. They include Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), crooner Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). The film mixes historical moments with imaginings of conversations that might’ve happened during this period. King takes this unique situation, gives these men a comfortable location, and allows the masks to fall off. They are all professionals, but first, they were friends.
Based on Kemp Powers’ play, which also wrote this screen adaptation, the film introduces us to its four leads. Cassius is preparing to fight against Sonny Liston (Aaron D. Alexander). He contends with warnings about his association with spiritual mentor Malcolm X, who helps guide Cassius through Islamic prayers. For his part, Malcolm X plans on defecting with his wife, Betty Shabazz (Joaquina Kalukango). Sam Cooke has soared up the billboard charts but struggles to win over the white audience at the Copacabana. Finally, Jim Brown is having a career crisis, and after stopping to visit an old friend in Georgia, he’s informed that, as a man of color, he cannot enter the house. The men’s lives are unfolding, with each encountering pushback for their beliefs and merely their skin color.
After Cassius is victorious in a rousing scene where he fights Sonny Liston, the four men meet at the hotel. Clay bursts with energy while Jim and Sam are ready to go out. However, Malcolm has decided that they should all stay in the room. It becomes an evening of lectures and lessons as Malcolm tells his friends they need to do more for the black cause. The conversations bounce from success to insecurity, aggrievance, and determination.
Often stage plays are difficult to translate to the screen because a single location can only be attractive for so long. Indeed, King’s film rests for much of its runtime in the motel room, and some conversations become less intriguing within the confines of the location. Still, King manages to play into the reunion of these men and the tension from what they all know is their subsequent separation.
At once, we see that these men are friends, can be unfiltered in their views, and have a history that underscores their closeness. The camera rests on their faces, capturing their reactions and the propulsion of dialogue, which is vital to the film’s authenticity. King’s focus on performance is a brilliant move and one that heightens this film’s capacity. Just watch as she trains the camera on Ben-Adir as he becomes frustrated under the weight of his family’s safety and pleads with his friends to use their voices.
Goree is the comic relief here, consistently pulsating with energy and making each man laugh. The performance allows Aldis Hodge to be an even larger presence as Brown’s silences and hard looks tell a story that strikes deeply. Goree bounds with energy as Brown reflects and listens. Hodge might not have the most material to work with, but his demeanor is overwhelming, and you understand his career crisis.
Leslie Odom Jr. almost steals each scene with his silky vocals and enduring smile. He sings softly to himself early in the film as his wife sits at the vanity mirror, and the moment resonates with sincerity. Regina King must’ve been excited for his rendition of ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ because cinematographer Tami Reiker brilliantly captures each inflection with his hands as his head flies back with musical escalation.
Finally, Kingsley Ben-Adir gives a powerful performance, unrelenting in righteousness and ascertainment. He effortlessly showcases different sides to Malcolm, from his emphatic look when Cassius announces he wants Malcolm to join him outside for a press conference to beaming with pride during one of Sam’s concerts.
Above all, King’s direction highlights how her musical sensibilities can elevate scenes by focusing on detail. Indeed, her use of music feels like the sustaining pedal on a piano, combining scenes effortlessly and building to a crescendo. Malcolm recalls seeing Sam perform in Boston. Cutting between the past and the present scene in the hotel, he remembers that Jackie Wilson opened the concert and allegedly tried to sabotage Cooke’s performance by unplugging the microphones. Sam stood on stage as the crowd began booing, and instead of running, Sam turns to the audience and starts stamping his feet and clapping his hands in an acapella performance of ‘Chain Gang.’
He commands the audience to join him in the routine, and the crowd willfully obliges. He lets the audience continue the beat as he croons with vocals so sincere that the audience eats every word. Malcolm beams from the back of the concert hall, his security standing behind him with attention. Sam and Malcolm differ in their approach to the world but can influence and unite their audience by engaging with the best of their talent. That they don’t always see eye-to-eye is secondary to their devoted friendship.