Venice 2020: Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke spend a memorable evening together in Kemp Powers’ adaptation of his stage play
With “One Night in Miami,” Regina King stands apart from many of her actor-turned-director peers, many of whom bring little with them behind the camera besides the emails of fellow A-listers who owe them a favor. King’s frequent episodic directorial gigs have clearly given her the wherewithal to make a feature film that’s ambitious in its storytelling, its visuals, and its ideology.
For a first-timer to tackle a period piece featuring four cultural legends would be impressive enough, more so when said period piece is based on a four-guys-in-a room play that the screen adaptation livens up with musical performance, boxing sequences, and massive crowd scenes. King doesn’t just take on these challenges; she succeeds at turning a property with any number of potential wrong turns into a vibrant historical tale tackling issues and controversies that remain tragically relevant nearly 60 years later.
There are plenty of plays that spring from the notion of “What if historical character A met historical character B, and what would they talk about?” Where “One Night in Miami” — adapted by Kemp Powers (Pixar’s upcoming “Soul”) from his award-winning theater piece — succeeds is in taking four legendary figures and presenting them as both men and metaphors.
The men in question are Cassius Clay (Eli Goree, “Riverdale”), in Miami to battle Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship; his friend and spiritual advisor Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir, “Noelle”), who’s helping Clay embrace Islam even as Malcolm is parting ways with Elijah Muhammad; NFL legend Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge, “The Invisible Man”), who’s just starting to dip his toes into a movie career; and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr., “Hamilton”), climbing the charts and running a successful label but still facing indifference and hostility from upscale white audiences.
Powers places them all inside a motel room on the night of February 25, 1964; Brown and Cooke are expecting a post-fight blowout to celebrate Clay’s win, but Malcolm instead gathers them for an evening of conversation and reflection – and, eventually, confrontation – about what these famous men (Clay refers to the group as “young, black, famous, righteous, unapologetic”) are going to do to shed the oppression of the white power structure and to uplift the race.
Here’s where the “metaphor” part kicks in, with Malcolm standing up for separatism and revolution while Brown and Cooke argue that success lies in working within the system and exploiting it for their own benefit. (“People talk about wanting a piece of the pie,” says Cooke. “I want the whole damn recipe.”) The writing and the performances go a long way to keep “One Night in Miami” from feeling like a cavalcade of ideas being delivered by stick figures, and not just because the topics being discussed are still issues being grappled with within the community. We’re used to images of a defiant, unflappable Malcolm X, so to see three of his old friends needle him by playing keep-away with his prized camera acts as a reminder that even legends are still human.
The opening-up of the play allows King and cinematographer Tami Reiker (“The Old Guard”) to liven up the story with book-ended material that takes us to Hollywood, Wembley Stadium, and the Copacabana, and even if some of the in-the-room scenes might drag a little, the performances – not to mention the mid-century motel fixtures from production designer Page Buckner (“Jurassic World”) and set decorator Janessa Hitsman (Netflix’s “Lost in Space”) — keep the proceedings lively.
The quartet of main actors have big shoes to fill – all four of these men were already larger-than-life, and no actor can tackle Malcolm X without having to contend with memories of Denzel Washington – but they all triumph. Goree nails Muhammad Ali’s charming braggadocio and fleet-footed athleticism, never falling back into mere impersonation while capturing the boxer’s way of speaking. Hodge’s Jim Brown is all charisma and hard stares; from his opening scene, opposite Beau Bridges as a lifelong neighbor who oozes Southern charm and old-school bigotry, it’s a captivating performance. Odom Jr. reveals the anger and the frustration behind Cooke’s ingratiating stage presence, and Ben-Adir puts his own stamp on Malcolm X, portraying him as someone with certitude about his beliefs on the one hand and hesitance about standing up to the hierarchy of the Nation of Islam on the other.
“One Night in Miami” shows King to be a filmmaker who’s clearly interested in balancing a variety of literal and figurative textures. She’s been in the business since she was 14 years old, but now, 35 years after her debut as an actress, she’s opening what promises to be an exciting new chapter in an enduring career.
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