2020 | R | starring Kingsley Ben-Adir, Leslie Odam Jr, Aldis Hodge, Eli Goree, Lance Reddick | directed by Regina King | 1 hr 54 mins |
On a night in Miami in February 1964, following a fight where Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) was crowned Heavyweight Champion of the World, Clay, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) organizes a hotel room meeting between himself, Clay, singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odam Jr), and football star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) to discuss focusing their fame and influence to help the cause of the civil rights movement.
Without a look at the credits, everything about One Night in Miami screams Stage Play and indeed it is based on Kemp Powers’ stage play of the same name. Powers pens the screenplay and multiple award-winning actress Regina King steps in to direct. On sheer wattage of talent, One Night in Miami has more packed into one room than any movie in recent memory. My admiration for King (who has gone from The Boondocks to American Crime to Watchmen) is immeasurable. Powers just coming off of one of the best movies of the year, Pixar’s Soul. The cast is also incredible. Hodge, coming off of another of the best movies of the year in The Invisible Man, Ben-Adir coming off one of the best show’s of last year, The OA and Odham Jr getting a revival with the Disney 2020 release of Hamilton. Any one of these individuals would inspire curiosity in the film, but all together is catnip.
All of this is at the service of a single-location talky that is so stagy you can practically see the marks being hit as everyone moves around the room and launches into their next monologue. This is a story that really works as a play, where the setting is so sparse and intimate the performances pop out, but as a movie it creates another challenge to leap off the screen. There is a long list of great movies that make the claustrophobic confines of a single location work. I, personally, love this style. From Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf and Guess Whose Coming to Dinner to La Notte and more recently, The Invitation or Scare Me. When these movies really work, they feel lived in, you want to stay in that room with them for the rest of the night. The performers have such great chemistry you want to see them bounce off of each other.
One Night in Miami in contrast feels flat. To sit in this room for 2 hours is a big ask, even with the film’s occasional breaks to the roof or the parking lot. The characters don’t feel comfortable there. More than that, Miami seems like a movie where one of it’s biggest assets drags on another part of it. The performances are top notch all around. These guys do spot on work to bring to life these real life figures. Particularly notable is Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X because it is in the shadow of Denzel Washington’s definitive performance and comes out his own. It seems like so much work was put into getting the perfect person for each role, that not as much was focused on capturing or generating chemistry among the cast. As a result we don’t feel like they are playing off of each other, but delivering their monologues.
Powers’ screeplay is a fascinating hypothetical scenario. What if these guys got together in one room and what would they say? He conjures up a philosophical battle between Cooke and Malcolm, Cooke thinking by owning his own music he is beating the system from the inside out and that Malcolm X is too brash and counter-productively provocative. Malcolm thinking Cooke has the best chance of all of them to spread the message through his talent. We’ve also got Clay on the verge of converting to Islam having second thoughts while Malcolm may leave the Nation of Islam and Jim Brown considering leaving football for an acting career. All of them working within and outside of the system to provoke change.
The story conveyed through the dialog never shifts out of this central premise. Get in or get out. We don’t learn anything new about these figures, we aren’t offered tid bits about their life or the times we didn’t already know. Some of the exchanges even jump out as phony. I have a hard time believing Malcolm X saying “I may be militant but I still know how to have a good time”. A little on-the-nose. Which is kind of how the whole movie feels.