"One Night in Miami" (2020)- Movie Review

Directed by Regina King
Written by Kemp Powers (based on stage play)
Starring Kingsley Ben-Adir, Leslie Odom Jr. and Eli Goree

‘A Spectacular Stage Adaptation’

Imagine eavesdropping on a meeting between Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown. What would these legends discuss?

It is not easy to recreate a meeting between legendary figures on the big-screen. When recounting the stories of real-life celebrated figures, filmmakers often must overcome overwhelming obstacles. First of all, casting is crucial. It is essential to cast appropriate actors that can embody personalities of historical figures. Then, there’s the added pressure of celebrating the legacies of icons that have passed away. Finally, filmmakers have the responsibility to introduce legends to modern audiences that haven’t heard of them. Consequently, portraying eminent figures often poses problems for filmmakers.

In this regard, the odds seem to be stacked against Regina King’s latest film “One Night in Miami”. Portraying famous historical figures is a daunting task, especially for a first-time filmmaker. However, King pulls it off beautifully in her directorial debut. An intimate, poignant and rousing stage adaptation, it offers an insightful look at the meeting between four African-American artists. Packed with smart cinematic techniques, engrossing storytelling and memorable performances, it is one of the year’s best movies. Although “One Night in Miami” is undeniably unforgettable, ultimately it is not a flawless film. It suffers from a slow first-half that tests the viewer’s patience. Nonetheless, it provides enlightening entertainment that will satisfy fans of historical dramas.

Set over the course of one historic night in 1964 Miami, “One Night in Miami” recounts the fictionalized meeting between four African-American legends. After his friend Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) is crowned as a heavyweight boxing champion, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) organizes a party to celebrate the occasion. However, what starts out as a cheerful party soon turns into a ferocious argument about segregation. As tensions mount between the lifelong friends, their close-knit camaraderie threatens to fall apart overnight.

Debutante director Regina King is a newcomer to stage adaptations. King is an award-winning black actress that is best known for helming episodes of famous television shows (ex. 2015’s “Being Mary Jane”). “One Night in Miami”, however, marks her feature debut and foray into the lives of legendary black icons. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to adapt Kemp Powers’ acclaimed stage production to the big-screen, but she pulls it off seamlessly. Using captivating cinematography, King draws viewers into the lives of African-American figures that seek change in 1964 Miami. For a first-time filmmaker, King proves to be an expert at blocking scenes. King’s decision to stage the hotel sequences using blocking is risky, but it works tremendously. It lends a palpable sense of intimacy and authenticity to the movie that is absent from most stage adaptations. Working alongside cinematographer Tami Reiker, King creates a breathtaking movie in which each frame is a feast for the eyes. King excels at recreating a meeting between African-American icons, and her latest feature is worth watching on Amazon Prime for this reason alone.

Another admirable aspect of “One Night in Miami” is the screenplay. Kemp Powers’ greatest strength as a screenwriter is his ability to convey personalities of historical legends through monologues. When adapting stage productions to the big-screen, screenwriters tend to struggle to integrate complex monologues into films. Monologues that thrive on stage don’t always translate smoothly on the big-screen. Thankfully, though, that is definitely not the case with “One Night in Miami”. Powers successfully employs monologues to capture the contrasting perspectives between the four historical icons. For instance, Malcolm X’s eloquent speeches reveal his undying commitment towards protecting black lives during the Civil Rights Era. Through these meaningful speeches, Powers creates empathetic portraits of the four historical figures. It’s a refreshingly humane portrayal of historical figures that allows viewers to comprehend their passionate perspectives on a personal level. Monologues are tricky techniques to employ effectively in stage adaptations, but they work immensely in this movie. Using a dialogue-driven screenplay, Powers keeps viewers engrossed in the clashing viewpoints of African-American activists in 1960’s Miami.

It is hard to not admire the award-worthy performances from the cast. King wisely casts actors that embody their real-life counterparts rather than perform mere impersonations.

Kingsley Ben-Adir delivers a star-making performance as Malcolm X. In his first ever leading role, Ben-Adir proves to be a committed actor with an aptitude for playing famous historical figures. It is not easy to portray a celebrated Civil Rights activist originally played to perfection by Denzel Washington. When portraying real-life figures, it is often easy for actors to fall prey to mimicry or false impersonations. However, Ben-Adir pulls it off effortlessly. With mesmerizing expressions, he embodies the commitment, persuasion and emotional vulnerability of the African-American leader. It’s a phenomenal performance that proves Ben-Adir has a bright future in Hollywood.

Leslie Odom Jr. is outstanding in the role of a renowned soul singer that uses his voice to express his strong worldviews. As Sam Cooke, Odom Jr. showcases his knack for portraying musicians. Whether he is performing a melodious musical number or refusing to be criticized by his friends, Odom Jr. excels in every aspect of the role. Odom Jr. has always been a talented singer, and this role allows him to exhibit his skills as a Broadway star. It’s a show-stopping performance from one of the most multi-talented actors working today.

Eli Goree is extraordinary in the role of a celebrated boxer. As the world’s greatest boxing champion, he imbues shades of humanity into a distinct interpretation of Muhammad Ali. Not only does he capture the imposing physical appearance of the champion, but also his generous affection towards his friends. It’s a transformative performance that provides an insightful glimpse at the little-known humanity behind a hero.

The final, most notable standout in the cast is Aldis Hodge. As the illustrious football player Jim Brown, he brings quiet wisdom to the movie.

Despite its extraordinary performances, however, “One Night in Miami” isn’t quite the masterpiece that critics proclaim. If there’s a minor downside to the movie, it suffers from an inconsistent pace. King’s decision to concentrate on introducing characters during the first hour of the film is bold and unexpected. However, it doesn’t entirely work. It affects the pacing and detracts from the entertainment-value of the movie. Due to this approach, the character introductions in the first-half aren’t nearly as engrossing as the hotel conversations of the second-half. Moreover, the film’s historical themes may not interest everyone. The film is mainly targeted towards viewers that are well-versed in African-American history. Viewers that aren’t familiar with the four icons may find it difficult to appreciate the movie. Given its historical subject, “One Night in Miami” may not appeal towards mainstream audiences.

Nevertheless, fans of stage adaptations will definitely enjoy “One Night in Miami” and so will movie-goers seeking enlightening entertainment. An astonishing directorial debut, it honors the legacies of forgotten African-American legends. Hopefully, spending one night in Miami with these men will incite newfound interest in their lives as leaders whose committed efforts towards changing the world deserve to be commemorated today.

4/5 stars

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