A confident and elegant directorial debut from Regina King, ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI recounts a fictional night in a hotel room between four cultural icons during the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. I don’t know if it’s the pandemic or mere happenstance, but there have been plenty of stage play-to-film adaptations this year—THE BOYS IN THE BAND, MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, THE PROM—but ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI has thus far felt like the adaptation most conscious of its medium, interested in being filmic, in the empowerment of the camera, rather than making do with what the stage play provided and letting the performers recite dialogue at lightning speed. Kudos to King on that achievement.
All four performers are wonderful, of course. Kingsley Ben-Adir disappears into Malcolm X, and is arguably given the most to do with his role, from doling out wisdom to venting frustration to recounting good times in earnest. Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown is perhaps the most stoic of the foursome, but he’s the realist—there to keep the other three grounded to earth in the midst of abstract political responsibilities. Eli Goree is as loud and in-your-face as he needs to be as Cassius Clay. It is a shame he isn’t given a larger opportunity to be much more than that, but there is a scene, closer to the end of the film, where he shares a moment of insight with Sam Cooke parked in a car outside a convenience store. This is, however, at the turning point before he becomes Muhammad Ali, so the writing choices are hard to fault.
And then there’s Leslie Odom Jr., hot off his show-stealing turn from the filmed performance of HAMILTON, with a performance as Sam Cooke that slow-boils into profundity, to the point where he’s the soul of the group, the soul of the film. For much of the film, Cooke is backed into a corner while Malcolm X berates him for not doing enough to push the cause of civil rights. Odom Jr. plays most of this coolly, though not passively—unwilling to engage in a political screaming match. Other times he’s playful. That’s what he came here to do: party. And there are moments when he stands to his defense with full gusto. But then he’s given the opportunity to sing, to engage with crowds of strangers, and to lift them with nothing more than his music. The first is in a flashback compellingly narrated by Ben-Adir, where Odom Jr. rouses an angry crowd into becoming part of the show. And the denouement of the film is Odom Jr.’s captivating rendition of Cooke’s indelible “A Change Is Gonna Come.” This song he sings to an audience of The Tonight Show, but also to a camera, almost directly to us, and this is where the full breadth of Odom Jr.’s talent is displayed. Every gaze and gesture is added characterization to an already passionate song that he absolutely nails. His performance is a testament to how a deliberate, quiet performance can strike so deep when it finally taps those heartfelt chords. He’s my favourite in the race for Best Supporting Actor and I hope the momentum of the film takes him there.
Historical and timely. I often hear complaints from those who don’t find films that are largely two-hour conversations very interesting. But words are the best tools we have. Debate over things that matter, that make people’s blood pump, is invaluable to our intellectual health and ability to understand each other. That’s why I’ve always appreciated films that are just “talkers”—that want to engage us differently than the crowd-pleasing blockbusters. This film may not be your cup of tea, but I say watch it anyway.
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI is now streaming on Get Reel Movies approved Amazon Prime Video.