Image source: telex.hu
Even though he disguises himself as a biographical film, One Night in Miami is not. In fact, except for a few basic facts, not a word of it is true, but it’s not a measure of its quality, in fact, if anything, it gives it a plus that will make it really interesting.
One Night in Miami is about an imaginary night in 1964, after a boxer still known as Cassius Clay knocked out Sonny Liston, making him the heavyweight world champion. Clay doesn’t go to parties with his friends after the victory, but gathers in a hotel room: there’s civil rights fighter Malcolm X, American footballer Jim Brown, and soul singer Sam Cooke. These people were all friends in real life, but the snowball wasn’t how they celebrated Clay’s victory. And especially not by arguing all night about what it means to be an influential, talented, or just rich black man in an America where they are still not fully taken into account.
The end result is exactly as it sounds: four men sit-stand in a room and then leave the room in different variations sometimes, but they never go far. The script was written by Kemp Powers from his own play, and it would be hard to deny that it was originally designed for theater, because sometimes you can almost feel the limits of the performances. In other words, only in theory, the piece, first presented in 2013, consists of one piece.
Powers perfectly chose the time and reason for his own imaginary story, the four men who were stars in different spheres all arrived at a watershed point in their lives. Cassius Clay will not be known by this name for long, he will soon enter the Islamic Nation, where he was seduced by Malcolm X, who is about to leave. Clay set out on the path to stardom, but he’s still young, 22 years old, and he’s not sure he wants to live his life from now on without alcohol or partying. Malcolm has doubts about whether it is worth pulling a finger with the Muslim organization as paranoia begins to take over him more and more. Jim Brown got his first film role as a record-breaking American footballer, which he claims is much more knee-sparing, but the sport that made him known has to be left there. And Sam Cooke is popular, both as a singer and a businessman, but he still lacks in himself the number that will be his legacy, and which is not about love and longing, but about everyday life that everyone can understand. All the actors in One Night in Miami know that a change is coming soon.
These may have been and have been dilemmas in the lives of these people, and they have quite certainly discussed them with each other because of their friendship, but in a stylized way, they certainly are not, as in this film. Powers ’scenario places everyone on a coordinate system, and from that position they can then paddle each other for days on how bad the other is. What does Sam Cooke think about Jim Brown going to film? What does Jim Brown think of the kind of bearded man Malcolm X? And so on and a variation of that.
All of this is not at all as boring as it seems, and largely because the protagonists are bombshells. There are four people who will most certainly be familiar from somewhere, but if we watch this movie, we will forever refer to them as having really seen them in this. Aldis Hodge, for example, also appeared last year in Invisible Man, previously featured in Step Advantage, but because of his imposing physique, we really believe he became a footballer actor, and we also believe he will be featured in a superhero movie from the DC universe soon. The second wave of Leslie Odom Jr.’s career in the Hamilton musical has brought her songs to Cooke she also sings in the film. Eli Goree’s biggest role to date has been a recurring character in Riverdale, but it perfectly brings out the playfulness and ambition Clay / Ali played. Also in the series (The OA, Peaky Blinders) pop-up Kingsley Ben-Adir can almost forget Denzel Washington in the same role as Malcolm X. Almost. However, it is not an easy task.
One Night in Miami is a huge fortune to have managed to find these four relatively well-known but damn talented people for the lead roles, whose plays remain just as interesting and nuanced as their sometimes conflicts are predictable. What’s more, the film often lives up to the grueling habits of biographical films when it utteres something with its characters that seems ironic to today’s viewers. When Cassius Clay says he will be boxing indeed in his old age, we know this is not true because the boxer suffered from Parkinson’s in the second half of his life. Sam Cooke’s ambitions say a lot about his character, but we know of his long-term plans to be crushed in December ’64 when he was shot at a hotel in Los Angeles. Malcolm X’s paranoia is not a fantasy either, just as Jim Brown’s film career didn’t go as bad for a while, no matter how much everyone doubted him. The references and melancholy of One Night in Miami can be understood much better if one is in the picture with the American pop culture of the sixties, or at least crawls through the relevant Wikipedia pages afterwards, but it works without them.
Especially if we endure those scenes where people from different perspectives argue at length with each other about whether what they’re doing is right or not. We already decide who is right or with whom we agree, One Day in Miami does not judge, there are no bad people, bad destinies, and even bad decisions, only human lives that have branched out at some point into something else, more meaningful, more sublime , or just in a more tragic direction.
And when it comes to branching lives, it’s not hard to think of the film’s director, Regina King. King has been a frequent supporting character in famous (Black Country) and even Oscar-winning (Ray) films since the 1990s, while constantly working on TV in series such as 24, The Left Behind, or the Brainstorming. In the second half of the 2000s, however, the jackpot hit him, first winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal in the play If Beale Street Could Talk, and with the Watchmen series, the protagonist became known to the protagonist as Sister Night. King isn’t directing for the first time, but this is his first feature film to be screened right away at the Venice Film Festival. Maybe this moment is where his life will change for him too.