Fifty-six years ago, the American writer James Baldwin wrote that “to be a Negro in this country [The United States] and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” Regina King’s “One Night in Miami” (2021), which takes place roughly four years after Baldwin said these famous words in “The Negro in American Culture”, grapples with the fact that they still ring true today. The picture does so, firstly, by enveloping us in the psyche of those who, in spite of America’s overwhelming and seemingly unshakable racism, were able to acquire power and success in their pursuits; and, secondly, by demonstrating that the apparatus of racial hatred they were either directly or indirectly challenging is not so different from the structures of discrimination that African-Americans are contending with today. It is easy to look at the progress achieved in the decades since the 60’s and, caught in its spell, overlook what more needs to be done to fully realise the egalitarianism that has thus far been both cherished and desecrated by the history of the American experiment. King’s directorial debut, adapted by Kemp Powers and based on his stage play of the same name, uses a fictional meeting between Malcom X, Muhammed Ali, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown to show that the lives of Black Americans in relationship to white Americans was one often characterised by cruelty, fear, resentment, subjugation, and dependence. And it is a relationship that, in spite of all the noble efforts to introduce greater equality, persists to this day.
From the outset, “One Night in Miami” has a quiet charm emanating from its total lack of spectacle. The opening sequences, which give us the context of what each of the four main protagonists is doing, opens a window into a mid-60’s United States free from revisionism and tampering; whilst the lack of clean oversimplifications gives the flick a refreshing, honest, trustworthy voice. The sharp editing by Tariq Anwar and crisp cinematography by Tami Reiker are likely responsible for this feeling, and their reward lies in the final portrait that claws into your eyes and refuses to let go. I’ve had a hard time letting myself get fully invested into the mise-en-scène of movies lately, and yet I had no difficulty here. Perhaps all I needed was a strong hook and a pair of talented artists to lure me into a world that, although old, cannot at all be called unfamiliar. The camerawork lingers enough that you are able to soak in every shot such that the outstanding work of Buckner and Robison’s production design, Zuelzke’s art direction, Baroon and Hitsman’s set decoration, and Jamison-Tanchuck’s costume work really come together and shine. Together with King’s direction and Powers’ screenplay, the culminating picture staring back at you is one of striking authenticity despite the fact that the drama we witness is nothing short of fiction.
Terrance Blanchard’s score punctuates the film with a soft and alluring jazz-ridden power. Expertly navigating through every dramatic beat and building up to each subtle tonal shift, he gives an often unbearable weight to the many moments of pain, relief, and catharsis that characterise this picture. I found myself taken away by the emotion of his pieces, and they are spaced out in such a careful way that you appreciate them when they appear and miss them dearly when they are gone. Like the rest of the artistic direction, the infectious rhythm of his piano feels entirely appropriate to both the period and likewise to the scope of the project; letting the music reflect, and ultimately enhance, the deliberately narrow and carefully human focus of the story that unfolds. Something more grand and sweeping might have given the film a fiery character, but Blanchard’s jazz gives the film a soul that it would have undoubtedly suffered without.
The picture begins with each character enduring an obstacle that reflects their internal struggle. Muhammed Ali is preparing for his fight with Sonny Liston and likewise for his upcoming conversion to Islam; Malcom X is opening up to his wife, Betty, about the shitstorm that’s going to ensue when he leaves the Nation of Islam; Jim Brown suffers the racist hypocrisy of a family friend while travelling home through Georgia; and Sam Cooke battles with a hostile white audience at the Copacabana club in New York. They bring these moments with them when they come together in Miami in celebration of Ali’s win over Liston, and Malcolm invites them over to his small motel room. Deprived of the booze and girls they were expecting, the trio invited by him fall into frustration as the night draws on. This frustration spirals into a kind of cabin fever, which snowballs into anger, and that’s when the close friends begin to argue; and its in their arguing that the the musicality of the film’s dialogue and the utter brilliance of its script comes into full view.
The conversations that erupt are not just political and personal, but philosophical and psychological. This is a movie about ideas. Malcom X has been bottling up his fear for his family’s safety, but he chooses to express this fear by judging Cooke for his lack of explicit activism regarding the struggle and affliction of African-Americans. Cooke defends himself, arguing that his artistic and financial success is in and of itself a challenge to the hegemonic racism infecting the Unites States and that he’s an inspiration to young black men and women all across the country. Malcom refuses to relent and continues with his scathing judgments and impassioned political rhetoric, much to the continuing anger and frustration of his guests. While Malcolm is taking a phone call, Cooke, Brown, and Ali share a drink and talk about Islam with one of his bodyguards. It’s clear that Ali is looking for affirmation regarding his upcoming conversion, but the man’s words don’t exactly settle his nerves. When Brown asks the guard why he needs religion to defend himself when he could just join a gang, the guard asks: “what’s the difference?”. Brown opens up to Ali about his ambition to drop football and pursue an acting career, and Cooke eventually admits to Ali that he has been quietly writing music that deals with the racial issues Malcolm attacked him for avoiding.
The fundamental message of this story seems to be that the struggle for racial equality in America was fought, and is still being fought, by a multitude of different kinds of people in a host of conflicting and often incommensurable ways. The four in focus have emerged out of diverging lived experiences; and the tension between them lies in the particularity of those experiences and the racist affliction that they all continue to suffer in common. Malcom X’s singular focus on direct and vitriolic political action, in tandem with his incessant fear of the future, however, has led him to disregard this understanding in favour of an absolutist, inhumane approach to how black Americans should contribute to the cause. Cooke and Ali are upset by all the fire and brimstone, but Brown starts to see through it. This leads to a powerful and yet excruciating moment when the latter pushes Malcolm to confront his militancy, his passions, and his subterranean motivations. He reveals to Malcolm that he is looking at the three of them as tools for a better future rather than as nuanced, fallible human beings navigating a complex and often unforgiving world. Malcolm has had the financial security within the Nation of Islam such that he can maintain the luxury of idealism, but the rest of them are not so lucky. And, as Brown points out, Sam is the only one of them who has built enough economic power to be truly free in an imperfect world; and is thus the only one who reflects a real, tangible freedom beyond the struggle.
Malcolm breaks down in front of Brown, temporarily revealing the rotting chaos that he’s been hiding from his friends. And, when Ali and Cooke return, they all drop their guard and finally open up to one another. Cooke tells Malcolm that he used to be so much more than the man who’s spent the past night berating him, and you can see in the latter’s reaction that he knows this to be true. The complete politicization of his life has robbed him of his humanity, and its clear that this transformation has left him in a great deal of pain. The moments that follow this openness are perhaps the best the film has to offer, and so I will not detail them here. What I will say, however, is that they drive home a second fundamental message of the film: that their differing, and sometimes conflicting, lived experiences, lifestyles, successes, and personalities are the means by which African-Americans will affirm their significance and resist white supremacy as individuals. Cherishing black artists and athletes is vital if the world that X wants to militantly usher in is going to contain anything that can be called black culture. But sacrificing all cultural advancements for the sake of political ones, as X demands, will only preclude this black culture from surviving the political struggle such that it ceases to be black culture and becomes recognised as a central part of American culture.
All of this captivating writing and nuanced social commentary is glued together by the outstanding performances. Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X), Eli Goree (Muhammed Ali), Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown), and Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam Cooke) are absolutely perfectly casted for their respective roles and, without much resistance, effectively convince you that they are who they’re pretending to be. Ben-Adir’s performance specifically is perhaps the film’s best, and I’m inclined to say that this is the most authentic portrayal of Malcolm X that we’ve seen in Hollywood thus far. Denzel Washington’s portrayal in Spike Lee’s magnificent biopic is fantastic, but as both have pointed out, the former deliberately avoided the risk of the direct emulation that Ben-Adir pulls off with a seemingly effortless swagger. Goree, Hodge, and Odom Jr. are likewise successful in portraying their characters in authentic ways, from every inflexion to every mannerism, and it’s endlessly satisfying to see them bounce off one another in the creeping claustrophobia of their environment. Films like this rest on strong performances, and I’m glad to say that, without exception, “One Night in Miami” can rest easy.
The picture is by no means perfect. Sometimes the location feels stale and worn out, whilst the plot often wanders too long in the direction of themes and questions that it has already exhausted. One of the biggest advantages of adapting a play is that you can toy around with new locations to enrich moments of the script, but Powers and King seem to have neglected this benefit in their drive to fully realise the material that worked so well on stage. This isn’t criminal, but it’s perhaps a little foolish. Adding some new environments for the actors to explore would have undoubtedly spiced up some of the conflicts and likewise broken some of the sameness. But these are admittedly only minor issues that I can easily dismiss. “One Night in Miami” is an intimate, character-driven deep-dive into the mindset of four exceptional African-Americans whose lives had a monumental impact on both the civil rights movement and the affirmation of black excellence in a nation that treated them as sub-human. Its moral, philosophical messages and psycho-social observations are both electrifying and educational in a time where honest and nuanced commentary is needed most. And its release alongside a wave of new films centred on noteworthy African-Americans, from Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI to Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, solidifies its place amongst a reawakening of black artistic affirmation in Hollywood. And so, whilst none of it is true in the literal sense and only a few moments within it stand out, the film as a whole is endlessly rewarding because its message is relevant, powerful, and uncomfortable. Three virtues that are, sadly, often missing in Hollywood’s delusional tendency to try and neatly solve racial issues with car fantasies (see Driving Miss Daisy and Green Book).