One Night in Miami...

 

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In an audacious conceit, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown banter and squabble in Regina King’s highly entertaining and pertinent drama.

 

One Night in Miami

Race to the top: Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali

  

One night in Miami four men sit in a hotel room and talk up a storm. Adapted by Kemp Powers from his own 2013 play, this would make for pretty stodgy cinema were it not for the calibre of the characters. For starters, we have Muhammad Ali – on the very night he became world champ: 25 February 1964. There’s also Jim Brown, “the best footballer in the world.” And Sam Cooke, the ‘King of Soul music.’ And the civil rights leader Malcolm X.

 

In 1985, Nicolas Roeg directed a film called Insignificance – based on the play by Terry Johnson – set over one night in a New York hotel room and featuring four iconic figures. Likewise a fictitious imagining, the characters here were all white: Joe DiMaggio, Albert Einstein, Joseph McCarthy and Marilyn Monroe. A conceit that worked a treat on stage (at the Royal Court), Roeg’s film version felt artificial and gimmicky. Not so One Night in Miami…, which marks the directorial debut of the Oscar-winning actress Regina King.

 

As a performer herself, King has elevated the drama through the skills of four remarkable actors, actors who are not only miraculously transformed into their famous characters but breathe real life into the recognisable mannerisms. While it’s the London-born Kingsley Ben-Adir who has been attracting the most Oscar heat for his turn as Malcolm X, history may be against him. Another English actor, David Oyelowo, was passed over for his uncanny conversion into Martin Luther King in Selma, and only last year the London-born Cynthia Erivo was nominated for playing the cherished African-American abolitionist Harriet Tubman. But this film is an ensemble piece and all four actors exhibit an extraordinary talent for nailing their personalities. Leslie Odom Jr, who played the abolitionist William Still in Harriet and Aaron Burr in the film and stage versions of Hamilton, effortlessly conjures up a snappy, savvy Sam Cooke – and sings in character, to boot. Aldis Hodge (Straight Outta Compton, Clemency) lends enormous heft, charisma and dignity to Jim Brown and has perhaps the most memorable scene – before the opening title – which he shares with Beau Bridges. As Ali, here still known by his pre-Muslin moniker of Cassius Clay, Eli Goree is tremendous fun and perfects the boxer’s vocal cadence (although he’s actually more muscular than Ali ever was). Which leaves Ben-Adir as Malcolm X, the quartet’s moral conscience and a righteous killjoy of the evening’s high jinks. Yet it is he who encapsulates the story’s moral timbre, driving home the consequence of what it means to be a black icon. Ben-Adir would make a great Barack Obama.

 

The actors certainly do justice to Kemp Powers’ perceptive and colourful dialogue, even if some of it feels anachronistic and even banal. But unlike Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, another recent stage adaptation, One Night in Harlem… is given a more limber, cinematic feel, helped by flashbacks and breaks from the claustrophobia of the hotel room. And it’s a terrific play. Following the Caucasian glut of last year’s Oscar contenders, this season we are treated to an embarrassment of African-American riches.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr, Joaquina Kalukango, Nicolette Robinson, Michael Imperioli, Lawrence Gilliard Jr, Christian Magby, Jeremy Pope, Christopher Gorham, Beau Bridges, Lance Reddick, Emily Bridges.

 

Dir Regina King, Pro Jess Wu Calder, Keith Calder and Jody Klein, Screenplay Kemp Powers, from his play of the same name, Ph Tami Reiker, Pro Des Barry Robison, Ed Tariq Anwar, Music Terence Blanchard, Costumes Francine Jamison-Tanchuck, Dialect coach Tré Cotten.

 

Snoot Entertainment/ABKCO-Artificial Eye.

114 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 26 December 2020. Available on Amazon Prime. Cert. 15.