Regina King has had a fantastic couple of years, winning an Oscar for her wrenching portrayal of Sharon Rivers in Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk and starring in HBO’s universally lauded Watchmen series and now, with One Night In Miami, she’s turned her hand to directing. Adapting a largely one-location play, it’s a solid first go, packed with great performances, even if the end product is still rather stagy and obviously an Actor’s Directorial Debut.
Expanding his own one act play, Kemp Powers’s screenplay brings to fictionalised life the 1964 meeting between Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr), and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) in a Miami hotel room following Clay’s iconic victory over Sonny Liston. Though Clay, Cooke, and Brown are expecting a party, Malcolm has more profound issues on his mind, and the bulk of the film is spent in the hotel room as the four men discuss what it means to be black and famous in America. There’s a lot of ideological weight to these discussions, with Cooke and Malcolm getting particularly fractious over whether spiritual or economic freedom is most important to the movement. Powers finds a clever balance between putting us in the shoes of these men in this specific historical moment and showing how much progress there still is to make in the present in terms of black liberation.
All four leads are excellent. Goree captures Clay’s mix of childlike glee at his victory and anxiety at his high-profile conversion to Islam (the film’s coda contains him changing his name to Muhammad Ali), while Hodge brings the same quiet dignity he possessed in last year’s Clemency to the proud but pragmatic figure of Brown. Ben-Adir, who has also played Barack Obama this year in The Comey Rule, is stoic and composed, his Malcolm being the character most aware of the group’s place in history, while Odom Jr steals the show as Cooke.
His repressed anger and resentment fuel the film’s most emotionally resonant moments, while his musical performances make for the most successful cinematic expansions of the play, particularly his rendition of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’. Other new scenes, like a couple of Clay’s boxing matches and some moments of domesticity in Malcolm’s home, have also been added to attempt to combat the staginess of the premise, but these are less effective, feeling more like obligations than natural extensions of the play.
Whenever one adapts a play for the big screen, the question of ‘what’s the point?’ is always raised. One Night In Miami doesn’t quite have an adequate answer, mostly feeling like a filmed version of a stage show and lacking proper cinematic or stylistic ambition. Yet, it confirms Regina King as a great actor’s director, bringing out some fantastic turns from her cast, and has the same conversation-sparking insights as the original play.