The theater world is still being held hostage by the corona virus. In her directorial debut One Night in Miami… actress Regina King elevates stage adaptation to a higher level and we get a glimpse of the men behind four black icons. She also immediately shows the value of the stage and that of film adaptations.
In 1964, four iconic men enter a hotel room after a historic event. Boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) unexpectedly knocked his opponent out ( pun intended ) to become the world heavyweight champion. After the match, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) invites him to a party in his motel room, but there’s no screaming party crowd, just singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr., Hamilton ) and football player and sports commentator Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge, The Invisible Man ). X wants to reflect on their achievements together, but frustrations quickly crop up. Especially about their place in the world, the black community and how they interact with white people.
X thinks that Sam Cooke dances too much to the tune of his white audience and doesn’t stick up enough for the black community. Cooke doesn’t feel guilty for his success and thinks X makes too much of a struggle. He is not a fan of the organization that X is still affiliated with: the Nation of Islam, which advocates a state of its own for African Americans. The situation escalates when Clay announces that he wants to convert to Islam (after which he took the name Muhammad Ali). Brown has slightly less complex problems, but still existential: he wants to give up his sports career to become an actor.
Major topics are indeed addressed, and also in a nuanced way. Both Cooke and X have a point, and racial inequality does not dissect and resolve in a matter of hours. The short content does cover the load of the film. You just have to have an affinity for this kind of ‘talking drama’ – to put it in an irreverent word. Some may find it terribly boring, but One Night in Miami… gives the characters time to explain their problems and get inside their heads.
At the beginning of the film we also get to see the main characters in their habitat for more framing. Cassius Clay is close to defeat in the boxing ring. Sam Cooke performs in front of an uninterested audience. Jim Brown is praised by a friend, but he is also banned from entering his house because he is black. And Malcolm X discusses a possible exit from the Nation of Islam with his wife. From there, people who don’t know the men immediately have enough information to follow their discussion.
walk ‘n talk
With movies like One Night in Miami… you can ask yourself: don’t we all just crave live theater? Interaction of the actors with each other, with the audience, the atmosphere in the room. For many actors, nothing beats the theater. It gives such energy to many that it is a shame that such a limited audience gets to see it. As an alternative, recordings of plays have long been popular, with Hamilton as the pinnacle last summer.
But some great texts naturally require editing and filming. Although that is not always easy for plays with little action and a lot of talk. For example, in 2016 there was still Fences by and with Denzel Washington. Based on a catchy play by the legendary August Wilson. Also this year, a Wilson play was made into a movie with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom . A review of that film will also follow, but both films have two things in common. They turned out to be a masterclass in acting, but as far as that last film itself is concerned, I was still a bit hungry.
That’s the strength of One Night in Miami… . The screenplay by Kemp Powers ( Soul ), who also wrote the play, already puts quite a bit of rhythm into the dialogues. The limited locations are also revived by the technical crew. The sets are minimalistic but beautiful thanks to the sixties vibe. Everything is colorfully filmed by Tami Reiker ( The Old Guard ) and Regina King puts a lot of dynamics into the direction with original shots, camera angles and movement. A few times the location changes, and that breaks the threatening rut.
But the biggest assets are the central quartet. King has selected four promising actors to portray the icons. The star of Aldis Hodge and Leslie Odom Jr. has been booming in recent years, but noble (relative) unknowns Eli Goree and Kingsley Ben-Adir are in no way inferior. It’s not easy, breaking through with roles that other, more famous actors have helped with. Still, there’s room for both alongside Will Smith (who was Oscar-nominated for his role as Clay in Michael Mann ‘s Ali ) and Denzel Washington (who won an Oscar for his portrayal in Spike Lee ‘s Malcolm X ) respectively.
Odom Jr. and Ben-Adir have the biggest and most versatile roles in the film and were therefore the most tipped for awards. It is ultimately Odom Jr. who received an Oscar nomination. Of course he plays a singer, and can therefore show even more. He has a number of songs on the soundtrack, but especially Chain Gang and A Change Is Gonna Come are gripping. We also hear his voice on the credits. Speak Now has also been nominated for Best Original Song. Odom Jr. co-wrote it, and will soon have a chance to win two Oscars.
All in all, this is a compelling theatrical film adaptation that shows the added value of the genre. Because the chances that many of us could ever have seen this play are very slim. Thanks to Regina King and Amazon now it does. Not all film adaptations approach the atmosphere of stage, but sometimes something else is added.