Films adapted from plays are amongst the hardest formats to pull off. But Regina King’s powerful debut feature One Night In Miami, whose screenplay is by the original playwright Thom Powers, manages to push past the limitations of the stage, to become its own distinct creature. It recreates a pivotal point in Black history, and presents it at a time when the conversations around Black Lives are being amplified around the world.
It is February, 1964. Four men gather in Miami on a night which turns momentous with each passing minute: Cassius Clay is coming off a big victory in the boxing ring (the World Boxing Champion title) and he can’t stop grinning, even as his much older mentor Malcolm X is going through a spiritual, religious conflict: the former goes on to convert to Islam, and becomes Mohammad Ali, the Black Superman who famously ‘floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee’; the latter is not sure of his allegiance to the Nation Of Islam anymore. Two other men, American football legend Jim Brown and popular singer-entertainer Sam Cooke, form the quartet.
The evening begins with the idea of celebrating Clay’s win, but slowly, the tone changes. The men talk about where they are in their lives, and how those positions matter for the larger civil rights movement raging in the US at that time. It was a time when your average White man could get away by calling a Black man ‘nigger’, and worse, to his face, and get away with it; it was a time when Black people were rising against centuries of injustice.
Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben Adir) has no time to waste on pleasantries, and demands that the other three sharpen their attitudes and do more. It isn’t as if the others are on the fence; it’s just that they are less vocally confrontational, not as willing ‘to piss people off’ as Malcolm. The 22-year-old Clay (Eli Goree) has a young man’s adoration of his own skills: aren’t I pretty, he says, looking at himself in the mirror. Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) points out that less dark hued amongst them are trying to dilute the movement, and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr, so good in Hamilton) claims that as someone who encourages Black artistes under his label, he is doing his bit.
Each of the four — ‘young, Black, famous, righteous, and unapologetic’ — is given time out of the room where they spend most of the night. We see Malcolm X with his wife and children, more troubled and unsure than in other cinematic portraits till now. Adir turns in a wonderful performance, as does Goree, jumping up and down with glee after knocking out his rival, Sonny Liston. The other acts are spot on, too. The thoughtful, able-to-see-the-bigger-picture Brown quits the NFL. And in a lovely moment, Cooke sings a song of dissent. Two of these men were killed soon after; Malcolm X days after this night, and Cooke a while later, giving it both poignancy and weight. Though stray bits of the film turn a bit stilted—it is a film in a room, after all– they are never stagey. The voices we hear over the course of that night resonate even more today. We are entering a new time, says Malcolm X. It was. And it is.
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