One Night in Miami… movie review: the past, still prologue

part of my Directed by Women series
MaryAnn’s quick take: An electrifying philosophical fantasia that imagines four towering figures of 1960s America arguing over how to navigate racism as Black men. Enraging, but also thrilling, bursting with cinematic joy.
I’m “biast” (pro): desperate for movies by women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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There is no more room for anyone to be standing on the fence anymore. Our people are literally dying in the streets everyday. Black people are dying every day.”

2021? Nope. 1964. It’s Nation of Islam activist Malcolm X in One Night in Miami…, an electrifying philosophical fantasia that imagines that the towering figures of X, boxer Cassius Clay (just before he changed his name to Muhammad Ali), NFL star Jim Brown, and singer and songwriter Sam Cooke all got together for an evening of arguing over the best way to navigate racist America as Black men.

One Night in Miami... Eli Goree Aldis Hodge Leslie Odom Jr
Things will get heated this evening…

Does that sound grim? Well, it isn’t.

Miami is enraging on one level, of course, especially in how it demonstrates how little has really changed when it comes to racism and white supremacy in the United States even though more than half a century has passed. But it’s also thrilling, because it is all about passionate intellectual disagreements about big issues — politics, celebrity, religion, money, power, art, culture — and because it acknowledges that people of good conscience can disagree on how to achieve the overall goals they share. And Miami is also bursting with the simple cinematic joy that comes with basking in the presence of four incredibly handsome, charismatic actors, all of whom exude that ineffable movie star It, and about whom the only reason you cannot say that they are are the peak of their talents is because they all are young and clearly have so much further to go.

I mean, I’ve seen this film three times already, and I’d be up for another go.

One Night in Miami... Leslie Odom Jr
Did I mention there’s some great music in this movie?

Actor Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk, Our Family Wedding) makes her directorial debut here, and it’s an astonishing achievement. She’s working from a screenplay by Kemp Powers, based on his play, but nothing feels stagey. Apart from a few introductory scenes that establish the bona fides of the four major players — as men with profound impact on American society, and as men with profound experience of its casual and overt racism — most of the film takes place within the confines of a motel room. And still there’s a sense of expansiveness, as these men grapple with the biggest of ideas. Yet it’s simultaneously intimate, too, and not only spatially. This is a movie about men, written by a man, but King allows room for the tenderness and the vulnerability to her male characters to find full blossom in a way that is difficult to see taking quite the same shape without her touch. For Miami is also about emotional connections between men, about allyship and friendship, the very things that are often overlooked, or treated only via distancing, proxy metaphors (and frequently ones centering aggression and violence), when men tell men’s stories.

The beautiful performances by King’s riveting cast are lively and full of complicated feeling. When Brown (Aldis Hodge: Brian Banks, Hidden Figures) notes to Clay (Eli Goree: Godzilla) that, as athletes, “We’re all just gladiators” to their wealthy white bosses — and to the fans, too — it’s a lamentation, with not a hint of tangled or even misplaced pride in it, even though both men clearly love their work, which just makes it even worse: their ability and enthusiasm are being appropriated and misused. (Goree absolutely nails the silly-sweet self-aggrandizing swagger that Clay was famous for, without making it feel like a cheap impersonation.) When X (Kingsley Ben-Adir: The Commuter, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) and Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr: Harriet, Murder on the Orient Express) argue about the “right” way to make money as a popular musician — and especially in how that is about appealing to and inspiring hearts and minds in much the same way that a preacher does — it takes twists and turns that surprise and humble both men. And us viewers, too.

One Night in Miami... Leslie Odom Jr Aldis Hodge Kingsley Ben-Adir Eli Goree
This is a wonderfully thrilling movie about people talking.

You get suckered in to the optimism of Miami, its premonition that the future is on its way and it’s gonna be great and wonderful and positive. You get suckered into the hope that maybe the next generation of Black Americans after these guys won’t have to be militant just to survive, will be able to just live nice pleasant lives. And then you remember… where we are right now, 50-plus years later. I’m exhausted, and I’m white. So yes, One Night in Miami… is an entertainment. But it’s also an admonishment. How have we not fixed the things these men are talking about? What the fuck is wrong with us?

first viewed during the mostly virtual 64th BFI London Film Festival, in pandemic year 2020

One Night in Miami… was the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for December 20th, 2020. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.

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