Friday, September 11, 2020


Regina King’s directorial debut, based on Kemp Powers’ stage play of the same name, is about a semi/mostly-fictionalized meeting/hangout between four Black icons on the night of February 25th, 1964 (the night Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston). These Black icons just so happen to be Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown & Sam Cooke. All four men are at somewhat of a crossroads in their lives. Cassius Clay has just won the world heavyweight championship and is about to convert to Islam under the name Muhammad Ali. Malcolm X is on the verge of parting ways with the Nation of Islam. Jim Brown is pondering leaving the NFL and pursuing a career in acting, and Sam Cooke is about to make the switch from fun party music to more socially conscious songs.
I said semi/mostly-fictionalized earlier because we don’t know the details of the conversation/hangout/meeting between Clay, Brown, Cooke & X, but they really were all together that night for a brief moment. That part is true. The match between Cassius Clay & Sonny Liston was huge so naturally, like all big boxing matches, the celebrities came out to see the fight. So the fact that Malcolm X, Sam Cooke & Jim Brown were all at the same venue isn’t all that hard to believe. What is hard to believe is that instead of hitting the town and celebrating Clay's win in a club or at a bar, the four Black icons (along with a couple of Nation of Islam security guards) stayed in a hotel room and kept it lowkey. The semi-fictionalized aspect of the story is the discussion they have on the state of Black America (orchestrated mostly by Malcolm X).

Right out of the gate Regina King is faced with a few challenges. First, King has to honor the original source material (the transition from stage to screen isn’t always successful).
The second and most challenging task is honoring the very real history that comes along with each subject/“character” in a film that’s part fiction yet still falls under the umbrella of something that kind of/sort of happened. Sounds like a lot, huh?
The fictional aspect of the story is intentional but there’s still multiple legacies to honor & uphold. One misstep or mistake and we’re taking something that’s already semi-fictional to begin with, and turning it in to empty Black History fan-fiction (something I wouldn’t put past anyone these day). I enjoy certain specific elements of shows like Watchmen (which starred Regina King) & Lovecraft Country, but they’re playing with the idea of Black history fan fiction when it isn’t necessary. The real stories & facts behind Black history are fascinating enough. We don’t need to add superheros & scary monsters (thankfully One Night In Miami avoids that). People like Emmett Till aren’t “easter eggs” or little references like something in a Star Wars movie (if you're watching Lovecraft then you know what I'm talking about).

To be clear - One Night In Miami is kind of Black History fan fiction but it’s respectful. The film does a few things that I personally cannot stand in biopics/true stories. Obvious on the nose references, spoon fed historical moments etc. But this has been a problem for a very long time with biopics/true stories so it isn’t fair to put it all on this one movie.
The separate/individual histories that come along with Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke & Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali are all monumental each in their own way. That’s usually the case for any singular biopic which is why I’m often so critical of them. You can’t fit someone’s entire life (along with the respective/accompanying historical backdrop) in to a 110 minute film. You can’t even do that with most single 220 minute films. Look at everything from Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev to Soderbergh’s Che. Even the most epic-length biopics still only focus on certain specific time periods or brief moments from a person’s life. They don’t try to cram one’s entire timeline in to a single film. It’s too much.

On paper, Regina King’s directorial debut quietly sounds like “too much” (both the original play and the film adaptation), but it stays mostly true to the original story/source material in that it mostly focuses on the one night where some of the stuff kind of sort of happened (like I said earlier, the conversation in the movie is fiction but it's safe to assume that at various points of crossing paths these four men have had serious discussions with each other behind close doors). There isn’t an attempt to try and cram everyone’s history and life story in to one film.

This isn’t the first time a version of this story played out on film. Some folks might not remember, but Michael Mann briefly touched on the events that would eventually become One Night In Miami in his Ali biopic. There’s a brief moment in the first half of Mann’s Ali where we see Clay, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke & Malcolm X hanging out briefly in a Miami hotel room after the Sonny Liston fight. Mann’s film didn’t dwell on that night or it’s importance too much but he did make the viewers aware that we were witnessing something special.
In a way, One Night In Miami is an unofficial sequel/extension of that scene in Ali (the boxing scenes in both films are shot & lighted similarly).

Ali (2001)

Ali (2001)

At the end of the day, One Night In Miami is more of a catalyst to pursue & learn about the many small (yet major) moments in Black history that don’t always get the spotlight.
Well...I hope that’s the intention. If not, we’re just kind of left with the empty Black history fan-fiction I spoke of earlier. But neither Kemp Powers nor Regina King insult the history or the subjects of the story and this movie isn't empty.

Visually, King’s execution is subtle yet still nice to look at. The majority of the film takes place in one room (although not the entire movie) and the cast is made up of mostly four actors, so this movie doesn’t go for the grandiose approach. You feel as if you’re in the early 1960’s without it being shoved down your throat with bad wigs and over the top wardrobes.
The actors do a mostly fine job but it was Kingsley Ben-Adir's portrayal of Malcolm X that stood out to me (Eli Goree’s performance as Clay/Ali was physically on point although his acting kind of came off like an imitation Will Smith doing Ali).
It’s important to note that this is one of the few recent Black films that doesn’t fall victim to copying the likes of Barry Jenkins or Jordan Peele (respect to Jenkins & Peele but so many Black films these days feel like knock-off versions of the aforementioned filmmakers from the overuse of slow-motion close-up shots as seen in the recent films of Jenkins or the overly Easter-egg/homage filled visuals from the films of Jordan Peele).

Most Black films are burdened with the task of carrying the weight of everything concerning Black history on it’s back. While One Night In Miami has a lot of important history behind it, the film is still about one night/one event. I think this is needed more & more within the unofficial world of Black cinema. This film is “important” but it's importance isn’t on the level of singular biopics like Ali, Malcolm X, Selma, etc etc. In a weird way, King's debut comes off as intentionally underwhelming which I kind of like.
Funny enough - one aspect of One Night In Miami touches one the burden/pressure of carrying the weight off the Black struggle on your back when you’re in a position of importance or celebrity.

It was a nice touch for Regina King to use “lesser known” actors as to not distract from the story which is what’s important. This isn’t necessarily a vehicle to catapult anyone to stardom and for an/actor first-time director, Regina King does a good job. I think adapting a small-scale play is a good/safe choice for a first-time director (and by "safe" I don't mean "easy"). And on a personal note - it’s nice to see a prominent Black film show young Black men in a positive light unlike recent stuff like Queen & Slim or Harriet...

If white audiences & historians can have films like The Death Of Stalin or the various stylized adaptations of Wyatt Earp’s life, Black audiences can have films like One Night In Miami. That’s not to say non-white audiences can’t enjoy The Death Of Stalin or White audiences can’t get something from movies like One Night In Miami either. Personally, I think the average white/non-Black viewer needs to learn about the individual lives of the subjects in One Night In Miami. Not to downplay or take anything away from the legacy of someone like Martin Luther King or the very long history of slavery, but there are so many important stories & figures surrounding Black history that deserve the same spotlight as something like the Selma marches or the bus boycotts.  
For example - this is now the third major film to kind of portray Sonny Liston as both a thug and nameless bookmark in the life of someone else. Perhaps he deserves a film showing his story...

Given the the subject matter (along with it’s timely release), and this being the directorial debut of Regina King who’s in the midst of her own personal renaissance, this film will do well among the audience it’s geared towards. So I’m sure it’ll be a success on some level. I just hope people who see this movie use this as a starting point (or a continuation) to explore stories concerning Black history that don’t always get the proper attention & respect.


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