Fresh from winning a well-deserved Oscar for her performance in If Beale Street Could Talk, Regina King now she makes her debut as a director for One Night in Miami, which opened last week at Grand Berry Theater and comes to more theaters this weekend. I must say I find that this period drama falls somewhat short of the critical raves that it earned when it played at the virtual film festivals of Venice and Toronto this past fall, but this adaptation of Kemp Powers’ similarly named play is a vital piece of African-American theater given a smooth transition to the big screen.
The story is based on a real-life meeting among four Black celebrities that took place in Miami in February 1964. After 22-year-old Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) defeats Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, he and his spiritual adviser Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) call NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), friends of theirs who attended the match, to a modest motel room for a post-fight gathering. Jim and Sam arrive in a partying mood and are not pleased to discover that no one else is coming, particularly no one of the female persuasion. Instead, Malcolm is planning to announce that Cass is becoming a member of the Nation of Islam, and the two of them want to recruit the others to the cause.
The thesis of Powers’ play is that this historical moment catches all the men at a turning point in their lives, and it’s persuasive for three of the four characters, with Malcolm on the outs with the Nation and Jim discovering that he stands to make better money acting in Hollywood movies than running the football for the Cleveland Browns. The script has more trouble making the case that the night has a profound effect on Sam Cooke’s life, although we do get to hear Odom singing “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Mostly what it leads to is a wide-ranging discussion of what it’s like to be young, famous, and Black, and what to do with their fame in a world that needs changing. I find it too obvious how the play sets up Malcolm and Sam to clash over radical change vs. assimilation, with Sam taunting Malcolm over his public gaffes and lack of concrete accomplishments, and Malcolm playing a Bob Dylan song as an example of real music that Sam will never make. Some of the better stuff here comes during a cool-down period afterwards, when Jim pointedly notes that all the most militant Black men he knows are light-skinned, while Cass tells Sam, “We gotta stick together. We’re the only ones who know what it’s like to be us.”
King doesn’t go for the big flourishes here and instead focuses on nailing the atmosphere of a scene, re-creating the Clay-Liston fight with cleanliness and precision as well as a fiasco of a performance that Sam gives at Miami’s heavily racist Copacabana Club. She knows her audience is here to revel in the otherworldly skills of her protagonists, and she’s happy to show us Cassius dancing around the blows of a limited British opponent during an earlier fight at Wembley Stadium, or Sam singing. (If Odom’s singing voice doesn’t have the piercing purity of Cooke’s, it’s not too far off.) Like many other actors-turned-directors, King stays out of her cast’s way, and while the British TV actor Ben-Adir does some fine work as the impatient firebrand Malcolm, your eyes go to Hodge, playing Brown as the most physically intimidating man in a room that contains the world heavyweight champ. For all the Black Muslims’ macho bluster, they back off when Jim tells them to. One of those actors who’s never the star but always seems to improve what he’s in, Hodge projects settled intelligence as Jim tries to chart a middle course between Malcolm and Sam while also calmly noting, “The knives are out. If I get cut, I fid’na hurt someone.” The performances of these actors are more than reason enough to see One Night in Miami. So is the appearance of a director to watch.
One Night in Miami
Starring Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, and Leslie Odom Jr. Directed by Regina King. Written by Kemp Powers, based on his own play. Rated R.