One Night in Miami… | LFF 2020 | ★★★★★
Regina King impresses on her directorial debut with this classy stage-to-screen adaptation which transcends the limitations of the genre to leave a lasting – and inspiring – impression.
Four men walk into a hotel room, chew the fat, joke and jibe and needle each other the way that only friends can, and then leave. So far, so meh, right? Except those men are Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), celebrating Clay’s 1964 triumph over Sonny Liston.
Essentially a chamber piece, One Night in Miami… takes this group of real-life friends and imagines what they might have discussed that evening in February ’64, as each faced a crossroads in their personal and professional lives. Necessarily wordy – none of these men were afraid of speaking their mind – One Night in Miami… is nevertheless an energised, dynamic affair, balancing complex social issues with moments of levity, and painting a picture not only of the febrile atmosphere of the time, but also of male friendship and comradeship.
Stage-to-screen adaptations are a tricky thing to pull off – what works in front of a live audience, within the constraints of a theatre, often feels staid and wooden on the screen. For every Casablanca, The Sound of Music or Amadeus, there are dozens of disappointments, often sinking without trace critically and commercially.
Thankfully, One Night in Miami… – adapted by Kemp Powers from his own stage play – deserves to do much better. Perhaps it works in King’s favour that this is her first time out behind the camera (for cinema, that is – she’s been racking up TV credits as director since 2013) – she’s not fighting the material, or levering it into unworkable scenes, but instead letting the excellent script and the terrific central performances flow.
If the marriage of Powers’ screenplay and King’s direction feels like a match made in heaven, the chemistry between Ben-Adir, Goree, Hodge and Odom Jr. is a gift from the acting gods. Each fully disappears into their character, despite (or perhaps because of) the choice not to aim for broad-brush imitations. King conducts them like a vocal harmony group, carefully maintaining balance as each take turns turning elegant prose into poetic performance.
At a push, Kingsley Ben-Adir is the standout as Malcolm X, giving every impression of bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders whilst shepherding Cassius Clay towards the announcement of his conversion to Islam, all the while preparing to step away from the Nation of Islam himself – and keeping a vigilant eye on the mysterious white figures observing him from the hotel car lot.
Within a year of Clay’s win over Liston, both Malcolm X and Sam Cooke would be dead. Fittingly, though, One Night in Miami… ends on a note of hope, Sam Cooke wowing TV audiences with a rendition of his latest song, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’.