As early as Lois Weber and Ida Lupino, women have shifted professionally from acting to directing. This is no generalized segue to Regina King and her directorial debut, One Night in Miami: as a director, she is that talented, that important, that pioneering. In 2020 we can save ourselves enormous energy and drama by just handing King and One Night in Miami all the major awards now and save ourselves the circus of pretending any film this year will better it.
As one of the major films this year kicking off the Toronto International Film Festival with its Gala Presentations screening, the film – adapted from Kemp Power’s 2013 play of the same name – is a fictional story about four real men on one real night in late February 1964. To call these men iconic is clearly an understatement; they are Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), the latter on his path to becoming Muhammad Ali. With Clay describing the four friends as “young, black, righteous, famous, unapologetic”, they congregate in a plush Florida motel room to celebrate his becoming the world heavyweight champion after beating Sonny Liston in one of the most famous boxing matches in sport’s history.
As different as the paths they have taken in their professional lives may be – sport, activism, and music – the men are clearly loving friends, and Powers’ script propels the film’s fast-paced interpersonal dynamics, packed from start to finish with electrifying repartee delivered by an ensemble cast all equally at the top of their game. Described by Brown in passing at one point as “one strange fucking night”, his observation is eloquently on point.
Shifting from touching bonding moments to almost coming to physical blows in extremely heated arguments, this is the night that Clay announces to his friends his plans to convert to Islam. Themes of transition and transformation lie at the heart of the film, both personally and in terms of their frequently passionate debates about Black collectivity and how to best champion its value, power and oppressed potential during the peak of the civil rights movement that defined this era.
While much of the film takes place in the one location, nothing about this film feels ‘stagey’. Page Buckner’s production design is immaculate, and the film’s painstaking blocking is as finely tuned and as carefully choreographed as any ballet. Cinematographer Tami Reiker keeps her camera moving, smoothly fluctuating between shifting in and stepping back, and rarely locking us down for too long to any one perspective. This is, first and foremost, and ensemble film, and despite the near mythological greatness of its four central characters, King and her crew understand the power of space and movement and how it relates to empathy and audience engagement on a fundamental level. This is masterclass level filmmaking from a technical perspective alone.
But this just scratches the surface. King’s extraordinary talent as a director becomes most immediately apparent through her impressive sense of rhythm; she understands on what feels like an almost intuitive level when to go fast, when to go slow, and how dialing things up or slowing things down on this spectrum can create profound emotional and narrative impact. Her grasp of the mechanics of speech itself are alone something to marvel at, and in One Night in Miami, the beats of the human voice – with all its variation of volume, tone, inflection and pacing – are as crucial to the tempo of her movie as editing and music. For a film whose energy and drama is propelled by shouting, its most shattering truths are often spoken in a near whisper.
Most immediately, this is illustrated most memorably around a lengthy argument between Malcolm X and Cooke as they debate the ideological potency of art itself as a tool to instill and normalize racial and political norms. But the same two men are also at the heart of one of the most exhilarating sequences in the entire movie, a breath-taking flashback where Malcolm X recalls attending a Cooke concert in Boston that even as a stand-alone sequence captures the spirit of collective action through the power of art like few movies ever have.
While technically a period piece, King and Kemp have no hesitation in transforming subtext into text as its four central characters’ preliminary chatter becomes increasingly political. By explicitly addressing the civil rights context of their moment, the film pulls no punches in articulating why these debates are relevant today. In regards to the more recent controversy surrounding Peter Farrelly’s Green Book sweeping the 91st Academy Awards with its on-the-nose racial politics, it’s hard not to speculate that King and Kemp take a direct swipe; speaking of the virtues of California, Cooke notes it’s a place where you “ain’t need no Green Book telling you where we can and can’t go” before he and his friends joke about making a film together. While of course a reference to Don Shirley’s The Negro Motorist Green Book first published in 1936, it’s almost impossible to hear this line in particular and not see it in reference to the Farrelly movie, Exhibit A in #OscarsSoWhite discourse.
But One Night in Miami does not bask in the naive rosy glow of simplistic solidarity; these men and the subject’s they discuss are far too complex for that. With that eponymous night bookended by the before and after of each man’s journeys – peaking of course with the acknowledgement of Malcolm X’s assassination only a few days short of a year later in Washington Heights – the canny deployment of Cooke’s signature song A Change Is Gonna Come and its defining spirit of hope resonates from the mid-sixties through to today.
One Night in Miami is impossible to experience detached from the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement, and Clay’s observation in the film that “power is a world where it’s safe to be ourselves” is a phrase drenched with universal relevance. One Night in Miami is explicitly about American history, but it speaks to the now on a global front. From Brussels to Seoul, Rio de Janeiro to London, even in Australia where I live the reckoning sparked by the police killing of George Floyd ignited public actions against institutionalized racism that pollute every corner of the world – only half an hour away from the Sydney Opera House, in early June BLM protesters were kettled and pepper sprayed by police in a major city train station after an otherwise peaceful protest. Absolutely One Night in Miami is about four men in the 1960s who each made an extraordinary impact on American political and cultural history, but King’s message resonates well beyond her film’s specific moment, and far beyond its national borders.