A Gem of a Movie
For the past two months, I’ve been searching for the right words to describe how much I love the movie One Night in Miami. Sometimes there’s no better way than to just come right out and say it. I freaking love One Night in Miami. I’ve watched it three times since the day it dropped. I’m going to have to reevaluate my top five favorite movies list, which has been unchanged for the past 20 years. This is a seismic shift in my whole internal pop-culture landscape.
What It’s About
One Night in Miami, directed by Regina King, is an adaptation of a play by Kemp Powers (who also wrote the screenplay) and imagines the events of February 25, 1964, when Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, and Muhammad Ali/Cassius Clay were celebrating Clay’s victory over Sonny Liston. It’s set almost entirely in and around the Hampton House Motel in Miami. Over the course of the night the four men discuss and, at times, argue heatedly about the best way to achieve racial equality in America. Weighty topics are broken up by true to life humor, camaraderie, personal revelations, and joy.
Talented, Charismatic Black Actors Playing Talented, Charismatic Black Men
Every actor is pitch perfect. Kingsley Ben-Adir, also known as the dishy heartbreaker on High Fidelity, blends Malcolm X’s passion and dedication to the cause while also showing vulnerability. The toll of doing the work against racial injustice while trying to take care of his family is palpable in his portrayal. An interesting twist in his characterization of Malcolm X is that he’s the uptight, nerdy one in the group, which humanizes this legendary leader.
What a brilliant casting choice to get Leslie Odom Jr., the dulcet-toned, scene-stealing Hamilton veteran to play 60s crooner Sam Cooke. In fact, he was nominated for an Oscar in the best supporting actor category. I could watch him breaking down his record producing, money making strategy to Malcolm X all day long.
Aldis Hodge, who played the fierce and fiery freedom leader in Underground, channels simmering restraint as football star Jim Brown. Despite his alpha male archetype, he often acts as the truth-telling peacemaker in the group.
Eli Goree embodies exuberant boyish charm as the boastful yet increasingly socially conscious Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali. The line in the trailer “why am I so pretty?” never gets old and is only one example of his refreshing joie de vivre.
Boys & Men, Friendship, Civil Rights
The premise of One Night in Miami hits all my sweet spots. Four friends. Four legends. The Civil Rights movement, one of my favorite areas of history to immerse myself in.
Like Stand by Me, which is also among my top five favorite movies, One Night in Miami fulfills that hole in my existence where brothers and young platonic masculine energy was missing from my life. Put a group of halfway likable charismatic boys or men together and let them bounce off each other and I’m in heaven. In One Night in Miami, the men have likability and charisma in spades.
The story is also about friendship and celebration. One of their main goals of the entire night is to go out and celebrate, yet something keeps holding them back, keeping them from doing so. That tension resonates even more so because we’ve all been stuck inside away from our friends for the past year.
They Shoulda Gave Regina King that Oscar Nom
I’m disappointed that Regina King was not recognized with an Oscar for directing One Night in Miami. Orchestrating four talented actors so that they never outshine each other but instead complement and contrast each other is the product of truly skilled direction. The audience gets to know each character equally. The conversations between them are naturalistic and seamlessly transition from one turning point to the next. It looks easy because the director makes it look easy. But it’s not.
During the iconic rooftop scene there is a classic and oft-used setup and payoff gag, where one person tells the other something in confidence and says don’t tell the other guys and you know that sooner or later the one that was confided to is going to tell the other guys. When this happens between Jim Brown and Cassius Clay, it’s executed with perfect timing and is so in character that the experience is expected yet rewarding and laugh out loud funny all at the same time.
And then there’s the story within a story scene, where Malcolm X recounts a performance he saw of Sam Cooke in Boston. With a lesser skilled director and cast, such a device could come across as overly staged and expository. Instead, we rub our hands together gleefully and settle in for a darned good tale.
During a tightly shot, climactic revelation, every actor’s actions and reactions are executed on point, while maintaining a nuanced, suspenseful rhythm. Not only is every character crucial to the scene, but the audience is compelled to look to each character for their take on what’s happening.
All adds up to badass directing. So, yeah, Regina King should’ve been nominated for an Oscar. I guess I’ll just go watch One Night in Miami for a fourth time as consolation.