4 out of 5 stars

The crop of recent movies dealing with America’s racial divisions has been substantial, and frequently of first-rate quality. But while many, to name just a few—If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), Monster (2018), Luce (2019), Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), even The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)—have directly and powerfully depicted individual racism and racist structures, some filmmakers have chosen to approach the subject from another, more contemplative angle. George C. Wolfe with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) and Rebecca Hall with Passing (2021), for instance, aren’t so concerned with the details of racist societies in action as with the ways their black members respond to them, often highlighting how they disagree as much as their shared experience.

One Night in Miami…, the directorial debut of Regina King (who as an actor won an Academy Award for her quietly assured performance in Beale Street), falls firmly into that category. Certainly, the prevalence of racism in the early-1960s is made amply clear in the first few minutes—from the frosty reception given to Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) making his debut at New York’s Copacabana Club (“I liked this song so much better when Debbie Reynolds sang it,” one woman says to her companion), to the jaw-dropping moment when a hitherto friendly Southern gentleman (Beau Bridges) tells football superstar Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) that “we don’t allow niggers in this house.” (The shock induced both by the word itself and by its easy frankness reminds us that even if much is wrong now, a lot more was wrong then.)

Soon, however, the film shifts to the hotel room of Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) in Miami (“a damn dump”, says the wealthy Cooke), and remains there for most of its duration. Malcolm, Cooke, Brown and Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) have gathered to celebrate Clay’s victory over Sonny Liston, though their ideas of celebration are different; Cooke and Brown are hoping for women and booze, but the intellectual militant Malcolm wants an evening of reflective conversation, and—as at several points in the movie—much affectionate humour is drawn from the contrasting personalities.

Malcolm also has another agenda: he intends to celebrate Clay joining the Nation of Islam group. Clay himself isn’t quite so sure that he wants to do it—though, of course, he did, becoming Muhammad Ali in the process—and Cooke’s deeply unconvinced by the plan: “We can’t all just go out and declare the white man the devil,” he says. This gulf in opinion between Malcolm and Cooke, who believes he is fighting racism in his own way from within the white-dominated commercial system, provides the film with much of its dramatic propulsion.

To what extent the film expects us to favour the radical Malcolm’s views over the more placatory Cooke’s is an intriguing question it never openly answers, but the suspicion must be that it ultimately comes down on Malcolm’s side. Certainly, Cooke’s given some decent arguments by playwright-screenwriter Kemp Powers, but Malcolm can be given equally persuasive ripostes—and, crucially, Cooke’s shown at the end of the movie finally embracing a more activist stance with his song “A Change is Gonna Come”. There’s a further twist, though: this was actually first recorded a few weeks before the Ali-Liston match. So could the movie be implying—at least for trivia fanatics—that Cooke was already set on a path of more overt protest, and Malcolm’s criticisms are unfair? 

The issues don’t necessarily have easy answers. Where One Night in Miami… really excels, in any case, is not just in raising them but in doing it via a quartet of absolutely compelling and convincing performances, especially from Odom, Ben-Adir, and Goree. (Hodge does nothing wrong, but his character gets less explored than the others.) All would have amply deserved Oscar nominations, though only Odom received one.

To the extent that any one of them is at the heart of the movie, it’s Ben-Adir’s Malcolm: quiet, reasonable, but 100% committed to his path and rarely off-duty (except when he’s talking to his young daughter on the phone). At times this can make him unbending and intolerant, though, and while none of the men is portrayed unsympathetically, One Night in Miami… is far from hagiography.

There’s a hint that Malcolm envies or resents “successful negroes”, and in the film’s best single scene, a conversation among the four on the motel’s roof that becomes argumentative, Malcolm suddenly seems less like the charismatic leader of the revolution… and more like the outsider kid tolerated, yet not quite accepted, by the popular crowd. When personal motives for his social-justice crusade are questioned by Brown he looks noticeably defensive, too. It’s difficult to imagine a better Malcolm than Ben-Adir, despite Denzel Washington much-praised title role in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992)—and even though the real-life figure Ben-Adir was facially born to play is Barack Obama—as he did in Showtime’s The Comey Rule miniseries.

In complete contrast, Goree’s Clay is immature, full of himself, full of energy—“what are you, a giant fucking baby?” demands Brown as the boxer bounces on a motel-room bed—but although he’s not particularly interested in the Malcolm-Cooke debate, he’s far from stupid or driven purely by instinct, itself a pleasant change from many films’ portrayal of boxers. There’s a wonderful exchange between him and Brown, who’s hoping for a Hollywood career once he gets too old for football, where Clay mocks the cliché of the doomed black character in action movies.

Odom’s Cooke is less obviously magnetic than either of them, but his calmer, more reserved behaviour perfectly reflects Cooke’s very different, less pugnacious approach to the world, and a concert scene where—temporarily devoid of his band and sound system—he manages to still hold the attention of a large audience suggests that in his own way he is just as much an orator as Malcolm.

In smaller parts, Lance Reddick (John Wick: Chapter 3) is perfectly cast as the courteous, imposing Nation of Islam guard Kareem, while Christian Magby is amusing as Jamaal, his over-eager and over-chatty junior colleague. Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti in The Sopranos) also brings the screen alive in his few scenes as Clay’s trainer.

One Night in Miami… is rather stagey, not only in its rather formal dialogue but in the choreography of character movements too, though the language does at least seem credible for Malcolm’s character. (“Malcolm done dropped the affected speech,” one of the other men says when a half-jokey scuffle erupts over his prized Rolleiflex camera.) But it’s not at at all slow—in fact, it seems shorter than its nearly two hours—and though King takes her time where necessary with some very long-held shots, there’s plenty of camera movement at other points.

Some quite rapid edits and the occasional unusual angle also help ensure that its stage origins never weigh too heavily on the film, and the visual style is always appropriate to the dramatic moment. (It reinforces the narrative in less obvious ways, too: as discussed on one of the extras, the production team adopted two different colour palettes, one for “safe”, black-friendly spaces and another for more racist ones.)

The staginess may put some off, but it shouldn’t—the dialogue and performances simply work so well that you can overlook the occasional obvious signs of the film’s origin—and flaws are very few. (Clunkily obvious quasi-Middle Eastern music when Malcolm and Clay pray together is one of the movie’s few ill-judged touches.) 

One Night in Miami… has funny moments, it has a few feelgood moments, and it has many moments where you feel real people are debating real issues of urgency. It may be confined largely to one room, but there’s never any doubt of a world existing beyond the motel’s walls, and Malcolm’s paranoia—he was, of course, assassinated about a year after the events depicted here—casts just enough shadow over events to connect this small-scale gem of a movie to much larger issues of race and history.

USA | 2020 | 114 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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one night in miami (2020)
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The Blu-ray extras provide much interesting context, both on the issues addressed by the movie and also on the film-making process; though they’re slightly dominated by King, plenty of others are involved too, including all the main actors and several production personnel. 

Director-approved Blu-ray Special Features:

  • New 4K digital transfer.
  • 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio.
  • An Essential Collaboration. Director King and screenwriter Powers talk to critic Gil Robertson about working together; there’s plenty of interesting detail about filmmaking in general here, not just the writer’s role.
  • Becoming a Director. King talks to actor-director Kasi Lemmons (Black Nativity, Harriet) about their careers in front of and behind the camera.
  • Regina King and Barry Jenkins. King talks to the director of Moonlight (2016) and If Beale Street Could Talk; this is the only extra that wasn’t created specifically for the Criterion release.
  • Building Characters. The best of all the extras, with the four lead actors (and King) discussing their parts.
  • Sound Design. Lots of technical detail in this discussion by sound editor and mixer Andy Hay, sound mixer Paul Ledford, and music producer Nick Baxter.
  • Making One Night in Miami… Multiple perspectives on creating the movie from King, Powers, director of photography Tami Reiker, editor Tariq Anwar, producer Jody Klein, costume designer Francine Jamison-Tanchuck, and set decorator Janessa Hitsman.
  • Trailer.
  • Essay by critic Gene Seymour. Not made available for review.
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Cast & Crew

director: Regina King.
writers: Kemp Powers (based on his own stage play).
starring: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge & Leslie Odom Jr.