UPDATED Thoughts, January 15, 2020: Just caught up with a second viewing of “One Night in Miami.” It is a powerful, well made film. It’s still talky, but I was less bothered by that. All the actors are exceptional. I’m torn among which one I liked best. Regina King has made an exceptional ensemble piece. She is really the star here because she’s taken what was essentially a play performed in one room with four men, and opened it better than I remembered. Eli Goree is just sensational as Muhammad Ali, and Leslie Odom, Jr. — well, it’s not just the singing. His speech about Bobby Womack and the Rolling Stones will land him an Oscar nomination. I was already a huge Aldis Hodge fan, and Kingsley Ben-Adir has got me now, too. Plus, I like any movie Lance Reddick is in. So second time around, I’m an even bigger fan of “One Night in Miami.” It’s certainly a contender for Best Picture.
September 10, 2020: My first TIFF film is Regina King’s “One Night in Miami.” I wanted to love it. Certainly, we all love Regina King and know how important this material is to her. But this is a movie that will play well on Amazon. In theaters, it would have been problematic.
Kemp Powers wrote this play in 2013, imagining conversations among four towering historic heroes who were all in Miami on the same night in February 1964: Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, football player turned movie star Jim Brown, and Cassius Clay. The latter came to fight Sonny Liston in a memorable knockout. In Powers’ telling, Malcolm X is there to convert him to Islam. The others are there for the big fight.
So what if they all hung out afterwards? What would happen?
The problem with the movie is all they do is talk, endlessly. The talk is important, I’m not saying it isn’t, but it’s pages and pages of exposition with no action. The four men cover a lot of ground and history but it’s not depicted. It’s reviewed.
Leslie Odom Jr is so good as Sam Cooke they should just spin him right off in a biopic and let him sing Cooke’s songs. As it is, even though this movie is co-produced by Jody Klein, whose father Allen Klein had the Cooke catalog, there are few moments of Odom showing off. Maybe they’re waiting for the sequel.
The rest of the main cast are spot on: Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X, Eli Goree as Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown. But they are all dressed up with no place to go. Goree has a nice way of capturing the rhymin’ Clay, Ben-Adir fleshes out a frustrated Malcolm X empathetically. Aldis Hodge, who should have been a movie star already, radiates charisma as Brown.
You can feel this was a stage production transferred to film. The one scene that has a gut punch is when Brown goes to visit a wealthy patron in the South played by Beau Bridges. The man is so excited to see him at his southern mansion and meets him on the porch, but won’t let Brown in his house because he’s back. It’s freakin’ 1964. Think about it: Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955. We’ve already had the march on Selma. It doesn’t matter.
If only there’d been more scenes dramatized like this, “One Night in Miami” wouldn’t have seemed like a year in any other place. But Regina King acquits herself with the material she has in her directorial debut, and I look forward to seeing more from her.