“One Night in Miami” is a story of complete and total fiction, but something that’s absolutely necessary viewing for 2021. The story, which is based on a play by writer Kemp Powers, (also a writer on Pixar’s “Soul”) is a fictitious account for four historical legends: Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) who spend a night together after Clay’s victory over Sonny Liston. That description is definitely a mouthful, but I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t one of the year’s most entertaining films. That entertainment value stems from the genius direction, writing and performances from all involved.
First-time director Regina King, who was recently on the awards circuit last year for HBO’s “Watchmen," definitely didn’t choose an easy project. A film like this relying heavily on dialogue can sometimes be a challenge to make cinematically appealing. Thankfully, in her hands, what makes things work is the trust she has amongst her cast. There are long extended sequences of these four legends discussing the issues of the time. What they do is deliver thoughtfulness without being preachy in its execution. It’s an absolutely fascinating feature to pull off, especially with the themes this film tackles. By making the camera be something that shows these characters in unique lights, it makes us excited to see what's going to happen next.
Our four lead actors Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X, Eli Goree as Muhammad Ali, Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown, and Leslie Odom Jr as Sam Cooke are dynamite. What makes these performances stand out from your typical historical drama, is how they create these characters. Taking place mostly on the inside and outside of a hotel room, we really don’t see a lot of their history. This forces our actors to create fully formed and well-rounded characters by explaining themselves instead of showing us. In the wrong hands, that idea could have played as manipulative and completely uninspired. What we end up with is a film that has a surprising amount of humor in the explanation of these issues. While never casting a condescending light, but rather informing the audience without berating them.
On paper, it’s the type of idea that can really come off as a bit too on the nose for the time we live in. What makes the execution work so well is all in the details, varying from the music, clothes and general sense of place. There’s a great feeling of authenticity that easily crafts an understanding of the world outside the room, without us specifically seeing it. Doing so allows us to get involved in these actors’ portrayals without having to worry about the cliche of “separating the art from the artist.” Even though the story is fictitious, it feels like we’re a fly on the wall of an important conversation. Some may not want to hear this conversation, which is arguably the film’s biggest detriment. If you’re not prepared for its “talkative” approach then it certainly won’t change your mind.
“One Night in Miami” is the absolute best stage to screen adaptation that I’ve seen. It will make you both think and feel, but never talk down to you. If you’re not on board with the premise already, I recommend you give this one a chance when it releases on Amazon Prime. There’s an importance and necessity here that makes every piston fire in the best way possible. Though it’s a period piece, it’s a story that very much feels in the now. It might not be my personal “best” film of 2020, but it’s one I never stopped thinking about.