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film review

Actor-director Regina King’s One Night in Miami is a fictionalized account of a 1964 meeting between Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown.Courtesy of TIFF

  • One Night In Miami
  • Directed by Regina King
  • Written by Kemp Powers
  • Starring Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree and Kingsley Ben-Adir
  • Classification R; 114 minutes

Rating:

3 out of 4 stars

One Night in Miami, the first film directed by a Black woman to be selected in the 77-year history of the Venice Film Festival, feels overdue in more ways than one. Directed by actor-turned-director Regina King and written by Kemp Powers (adapting his own play), the film ambitiously translates to the screen a fictional account of Feb. 25, 1964 – the night when Muhammad Ali become the heavyweight champion of the world. In Powers’s telling, that evening saw Ali convene in a hotel room for a heady conversation with some equally well-known friends: Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke.

A nearly two-hour exercise in compacting character and biography with ease, King’s directorial debut relies largely on our shared cultural memory of these historic Black figures to impart a sense of lived experience into its fiction. Language, photos and real-life events are all used here to imbue the story with the almost habitual checkmarks and archival gestures to personhood upon which the film builds its characters. These cultural signposts live alongside Kemp’s fictive reality, which has extracted its one moment – the titular and speculative “night” – into a lengthy study of the intersections of Black political thought with the pivotal cultural moments within which these four men lived.

In many ways, Eli Goree (as Muhammad Ali) and Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X) suffer from the cultural history and visibility of their respective characters’ previous onscreen lives. While Canadian actor Goree brings an entirely inoffensive gait and almost tame energy to his role (similar to the blandly straightforward yet still charismatic performance by Will Smith in Michael Mann’s 2001 Oscar-bait Ali), it’s difficult to watch young Ben-Adir’s portrayal of civil-rights organizer and activist Malcolm X and not immediately think of seasoned veteran Denzel Washington and the gravitas he brought to Spike Lee’s seminal 1992 biopic.

Ben-Adir’s performance in particular – which, in and of itself, is just fine – feels almost inconsequential within the context of the cultural history that King’s film is trying its best to honour. Indeed, the energy of King’s film is one that feels utterly conscious of the weight of the history it must live up to (and likewise utterly conscious of the prestige and respectability a project such as this evokes). However, in its preoccupation with the “then,” One Night in Miami seems almost haunted by the spirit of the now.

Left to right: Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke, Eli Goree as Cassius Clay, Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X and Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown.Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The film’s adaptation from a stage play leads to some of its weaknesses, particularly limitations in terms of staging and conversation. A handful of moments break through the tiringly thespian approach – many of them centering on the agile performances by Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown) and Leslie Odom Jr. (Cooke). Hodge, in particular, is understated yet impactful in his ability to conjure a range of feeling that is neither overly dramatic nor bland in its ordinariness.

King’s direction is accomplished and assured, no surprise given that she has been directing in television for years. In terms of craft, this is a work to be lauded in relation to the standard of filmmaking it aspires to – it would be no surprise if King were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director (and to accomplish another first for Black women in doing so).

In a world where cinematic refuse such as Peter Farrelly’s Green Book can go on to win the Oscar for Best Picture, One Night In Miami and its director surely deserve accolades. But where does that leave audiences – particularly Black audiences – in terms of narrative and formal innovation? Or of our histories being depicted with the complexity and spirit inherent within them?

One Night In Miami is an accomplishment relative to the standards of its industry, but for filmgoers seeking new and exciting work that exists outside of that orbit, King’s film is one that you’ve seen before. One Night In Miami feels squarely placed within well-crafted frameworks of the past, meant to succeed only within a wholly conservative future.

One Night in Miami is available to stream starting Jan. 15 on Amazon Prime Video

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