January 20, 2021 6:02:07 pm
Four Black icons, one historic night in Miami. This is the simplistic one-line synopsis of actor Regina King’s debut film as a director, One Night in Miami. Adapted from Kemp Powers play of the same name and penned for the screen by the writer himself, One Night in Miami revolves around boxer Cassius Clay aka Muhammad Ali, NFL champion Jim Brown, Blues singer Sam Cooke and the controversial revolutionary figure, Malcolm X.
To begin with, One Night in Miami is not so much about the plot as it is about the characters and what they are meant to convey in this two-hour film. This is an actor’s film which is driven by the screenplay. And what performances! All the four leading men are in top-notch form as they guide us through the narrative, little-by-little. Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge and Leslie Odom Jr play popular figures here. It would have been so easy to make caricatures, to unintentionally lampoon them. But that does not happen for even a moment, thanks to the amazing sense of control exercised by the main cast. Kingsley Ben-Adir’s role is perhaps slightly tougher than his co-stars, considering the kind of divided response the subject of Malcolm X usually evokes. Kingsley seems to have blocked the noise of his surroundings as you see him move like the historical figure, hear the same kind of inflections in his speech, witness a similar body language. Quiet, tense but passionate; Kingsley Ben-Adir brings a silent strength to his Malcolm. A wonderful job.
The young, bristling energy of a skillful Cassius but a doubtful, nervous Muhammad Ali; Canadian actor Eli Goree sparkles as the famous world champion. Meanwhile, Aldis Hodge comes off as a giant jock in the first half as NFL player Jim Brown. But it is the latter portions when he sits down to have a tete-a-tete with Malcolm that he truly comes into his own. He reveals his wiser, softer side, an almost savant-like figure, as Hodge had earlier shared in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. Leslie Odom Jr’s portrayal of the legendary Sam Cooke is humane, as a person who is grounded and aware of his reality, even if he happens to love the glamour of Hollywood. It is these dichotomies that give the four larger-than-life figures a feel of an everyman, a struggling man coming to terms with his evolving worldview.
And now to the conversations. The words, though simple, carry much weight. Be it Muhammad Ali’s “Power just means a world where we are safe to be ourselves,” or when early on in the film, a white man speaks patronisingly to Jim Brown, “So considerate of you, but you know we don’t allow ni****s in the house, so it’s quite all right.” The Caucasian man in question was supposed to be kind-hearted but it shocks Brown to hear him say the N-word after treating him so nicely. It shocks and disgusts him that the white man still considers him an outcast, that the fact that he is being courteous to Brown is a favour to the football champ, and that he is expected to be ‘satisfied’ with what he has. A later conversation between Jim Brown and Malcolm X about the ‘lighter skin’ being ‘militants’ and their need to appease the darker African-Americans is another punch to the gut. When Sam Cooke confesses that he wanted to be the singer-songwriter of Bob Dylan’s classic and rousing track “Blowin’ in the Wind,” it is yet another revelation of how the thinking Black American man sees himself. And for the film to come out at a time when Black Lives Matter movement is once again gaining momentum is perfectly fitting. Take a bow, Regina King and team.
One Night in Miami is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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