MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Drama/ Stars: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Nicolette Robinson, Michael Imperioli, Beau Bridges, Joaquina Kalukango, Jerome A. Wilson, Amondre D. Jackson, Aaron D. Alexander, Christian Magby, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Jeremy Pope, Christopher Gorham/ Runtime: 114 minutes
I think it should be said that there was, among a whole host of other things, quite the intriguing narrative thread set up last year. That of course being that that present day film helmers decided to regale us with narratives set in the past, but which had lines that attached things learned back then and tied them into things that are going on now. Perhaps two of the better examples I can think of were Aaron Sorkin showcasing cop brutality in protests from the late 60s-early 70s, but which felt like they could have happened just yesterday in his film The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Spike Lee, through his film Da 5 Bloods, tying the racism suffered by African American soldiers during the Vietnam War to the conversations that have been occurring which involve the Black Lives Matter movement. To this iconic and truly special line-up however, I think the time has now come to add Regina King’s truly majestic One Night in Miami. Indeed this is a slice of cinematic pie that is an adaptation of a play by Kemp Powers that showcases the, fictional, dialogue that may have occurred between Jim Brown, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Cassius Clay when they all came together to celebrate Cassius besting Sonny Liston in order to acquire the World Heavyweight Title. Yet even though their thoughts about both the dilemmas they are saddled with and the worries that are attached to them at the hip say massive amounts about just where we in America were at that time and where we might have gone, I feel it should also be said that it is with the deepest thanks to a riveting cast to say nothing of Miss King’s truly dynamic and electric showcasing of the play’s truly complex ideas that manages to aid this slice of cinematic pie in soaring with an energy and a franticness that not a whole lot of movies from the year 2020 can claim that they possess let alone even considered possessing in the first place.
The plot is as follows: It is that iconic decade known as the 1960s and, in the aftermath of a celebrated fighter going by the name of Cassius Clay besting his opponent Sonny Liston and in the process claiming the Word Heavyweight Title, a quartet of men have gathered in a hotel room in the state of Florida in order to celebrate this hard-fought for victory. These men include Cassius himself, noted football player Jim Brown, Civil Rights activist Malcolm X, and singer Sam Cooke. Yet to each other they are not just these things: rather they are also friends and brothers plain and simple. However this night will be one that’s different for these men. That’s because these friends are going to share quite a bit with each other. Things that will reveal not only what these truly iconic men felt about the way things were going in America in their particular time and era, but also in how they felt things would go in, what was to them, the future, but to us is no more and no less than the here and now…..
Now, with few exceptions, I have felt that way too often a film that is an adaptation of a stage play is usually stricken with an urge to stay too close to where the material first started. By that I mean they often give off the vibe of being held down by the boundaries a stage can establish and as a result usually can’t comprehend just how to transfer the material and place it in a real world setting where it can proceed to move around, take a simple breath, and just magnify the thematic material being showcased on the page. Thankfully, this is one adaption that isn’t saddled with that particular burden. That is because even though the majority of what goes on in the film takes place in a hotel room in the city of Miami, Miss King manages to find methods to aid her in following this quartet of men into important locales that help expand on both just who they are as people and just what they managed to contribute to the world around them. It is in accomplishing this then that King is also able to showcase her immense skill in narrative regaling from a visual perspective when it comes to the worlds of sport, music, religion, and political machinations. Indeed it speaks absolute volumes in regards to her confidence as a film helmer that she can be just as at ease showing us Sam Cooke having to deal with outright bigotry at the Copacabana as she is at swaying to and fro with Cassius Clay during a crucial boxing match. Indeed be it ensnaring intimate moments with these truly complex men who are simply trying to find their path through some very complex times or in illustrating for each and everyone one of us the grandiose reasons why their various struggles should strike a chord with people today, King is able to master just how her distinct slice of cinematic pie wishes to converse with the audience about the very important things that it has to say and as a result this slice of cinematic pie is thankfully able to avoid either looking, feeling, or even sounding like a play that was recorded with a video camera and just immediately issued a theatrical release.
In addition, I will also say this for this film’s benefit: this film does manage to do the truly incredible and potentially overwhelming to the quality of the overall slice of cinematic pie job of giving all four of the legendary quartet at the beating heart of this film some truly phenomenal performances. Having said that though, I do feel that it is Eli Goree’s performance as Cassius Clay that is a true knockout (pun intended and also coming from someone who really enjoyed Will Smith’s take on the iconic pugilist) with a very close second being provided by Kingsley Ben-Adir who does a downright wonderful job as Malcolm X. I think though that a key reason I feel that way is because the desire that Malcolm has for Cassius is an ingredient that really supports and strengthens the most crucial dialogue that this slice of cinematic pie has going for it. You see dear reader, at the beginning of this tale, Clay has not yet 110% embraced Islam and in the process fully become the man we would know as Muhammad Ali. Indeed it is this quite revelatory choice which manages to tie directly into the big question this film presents us with in that what exactly do people of influence do with that influence to try and change the world around them for the better? I mean at the time our story takes place Jim Brown is rewriting the record books in football, but what does that matter if he can’t even enter the home of a white guy because of bigotry and prejudice still existing in the world? Also musicians like Bob Dylan at this period in history were changing things with the lyrics that they put to paper so is someone like Sam Cooke obligated to follow suit? Yet whilst Malcolm believes this to be necessary, I can promise you that the reasons why the other three may possessing for not being as certain as he is are in equal measure timely, riveting, and pack quite the emotionally wallop especially when taking into a key moment early in the film that deals with Brown and the pull-no-punches ignorance that racism seems to possess in droves that will have you both sick to your stomach and angry to the hilt in your heart.
All in all it is absolutely incredible that, very much like The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Da 5 Bloods, One Night in Miami manages to be a slice of cinematic pie that has just an equal amount to say about the world we are living in right now as much as it does about what life was like all the way back in the long-gone year that is 1964. Of course, the fact that this is the case manages to accomplish something else as well in that this really does tie back to the integral and crucial point I chose to make at the very start of this review of how not only is the idea of history one that operates in cycles, but also in how what we as a species learned before can be used to educate us in the here and now and help us as we look ahead to what could be as well. Now I won’t lie: this is an endeavor that can be heartbreaking and even tragic in some ways especially when the lesson is one that coming from film helmer Spike Lee in his slice of cinematic pie Da 5 Bloods and it takes the form of scenes showing Black Lives Matter protests that proceed to deliver a series of excruciating punches to the gut as it also coerces us to ask ourselves on an individual level just why in the world have we not really moved forward as much as we like to say we have from the downright insanity-fueled times that was the decade known as the 60s. Indeed with all of that time having come and gone I do find myself asking just what the heck has society been doing during that length of time? Indeed this slice of cinematic pie seems to take great pride in discussing these questions whilst at the same time giving us ones that are just as integral to our lives including what else can we as a society do? Indeed, as seen in this film, on one riveting evening, a quartet of powerful young men who were all big in their respective worlds found themselves having to swallow the bitter but integral pill of reality that the integrity-laced path onward was within their grasp though in order to fully cash in on their success would always come with road blocks. Indeed in one astonishing moment, we see as Cassius states that he has become the best in the world of boxing and yet he was only 22 when he did it. Indeed the questions should be asked then: should a man at that age really possess that kind of influence, and just as crucially is a person at fault if they acquire that level of prestige only to not do a single positive thing with it? To be honest with you I don’t exactly have answers to those questions, but thanks to this extraordinary slice of cinematic pie I can promise you I will be pondering about it for a while to come. On a scale of 1-5 I proudly give One Night in Miami a solid 4 out of 5.