Director: Regina King
Stars: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Leslie Odom, Jr.
Regina King’s star has only been in ascendance of late. From sterling work in TV shows such as The Leftovers and Watchmen, through to a Best Supporting Actress win for her part in Barry Jenkins’ damned-near-perfect If Beale Street Could Talk. Now she’s making headlines for her work behind the camera with this glossily satisfying theatre adaptation.
Hot on the heels of George C. Wolfe’s similarly stage-born Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, One Night in Miami… is designed as a showcase for impressive Black talent, transmitted to us with that pristine veneer that gets Oscar’s geese a’bumping. A cynic might think that, in the wake of recent controversies over inclusion (or the lack thereof), the studios are shrewdly putting their money behind palatable Black cinema to give conservative voters some agreeable choices. Regardless of the motives behind the money, it’s a welcome opportunity for great emerging and overlooked talents to grab some of the spotlight. The film itself even takes this subject to task in a pointed rooftop debate.
Miami… is the kind of earnest Issues Movie that awards season likes to congratulate or, at least, nod toward. February 25th, 1964. Hot on the heels of winning a fight against Sonny Liston, boxing legend Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) happens upon the company of a number of other living legends in the titular Floridian city. Holed up in a motel, he shares drinks and discussion with none other than Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.). Kemp Powers’ script – based on his own play – imagines the influence these men might have had on one another… and on the course of the days and months to come.
King’s work is handsome, calling to mind the elegance of Ava DuVernay’s opening triptych, from I Will Follow through Selma. Pretty, shallow focus and tapestry-like wide shots. King has an eye for a distinctive, even iconic frame. Little joys like her cut to Clay at the bottom of the pool, framed between the lettering of the film’s title are a case in point. Or the space she breathes into a quiet moment, like Clay and X praying together in the afternoon. She is also, unsurprisingly, an actor’s director, right down to the peripheral characters. Here you’ll find prestige TV mainstays like Michael Imperioli, Lawrence Gilliard, Jr. and Lance Reddick putting in valuable and memorable sideline work.
But it’s the headlining foursome who demand the attention and praise here. Goree’s Clay – the youngest of the four and on the verge of his personal reinvention as Muhammad Ali – is imbued with an almost babyish youthfulness and invulnerability. Bouncing on beds and eating ice cream. Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X has a tender, scholarly aspect and, with a lion’s share of the dialogue, impresses most immediately. Hodge (great last year in Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man) continues to please and brings broadly masculine charm to Jim Brown (himself transitioning from sports to acting). Odom, Jr., meanwhile, sells Sam Cooke as easy-going but world-weary at the same time; a delicate balance that he manages to make seem effortless. There’s not a loose fit between them. They’re engaging company for two hours.
This is, of course, an imagined night, and it glides with the soft-footed grace of fantasy. A delightful “what if”, though not a love-in. These men challenge one another, and its from here that the drama (and showcase performances) are built. Within it’s warmly lit interiors and combative dialogue exchanges, Powers prods to the fore the political tensions of the time, at first lightly (mild conversation with a Vietnam vet, Malcolm sensing his own impending demise like a soothsayer), then with greater force as the men debate their responsibilities as role models for ’60s Black America. Here is where it gets heated, involved, kinetic.
King’s prestige piece sees her sitting comfortably in the director’s chair. It could become a creatively lucrative place for her. Personally, I’d like to see her on her feet a little more with future projects, but the safety here is sensible. She’s learned to walk like there’s nothing to it. Now it’s time for her to run. In the meantime, this is a better-than-average puff-piece for the Academy to swoon over, and it should position most of its cast as leading men in their own right. All good things.