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“Which of us doesn’t belong?” asks soul singer Sam Cooke (Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr), casting his gaze over the men in front of him. It’s 25 February 1964, and gathered with Cooke in a modest Miami Beach hotel room are political activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), who has just been crowned heavyweight boxing champion of the world. All four are, in Clay’s words, “young, black, righteous, unapologetic, famous”. Cooke’s provocation is the trick question at the heart of Regina King’s slick and energised directorial debut.
Written by Kemp Powers (co-writer and co-director of Pixar’s recent hit Soul) and based on his 2013 play of the same name, the film imagines the four men brought together to celebrate Clay’s win. Expecting a party with booze and girls, they are instead treated to vanilla ice-cream and a heated debate. “I thought we would reflect,” says Malcolm, spiritual mentor to Clay, who is on the brink of becoming Muhammad Ali and converting to the Nation of Islam.
King made her name as an actor, winning an Academy Award in 2019 for If Beale Street Could Talk. As a film-maker she has sharp instincts, breaking out of the play’s one-act structure with a prologue that connects the characters. Cooke is introduced with a performance at the Copacabana Club, crooning a cover of Tammy to an unenthusiastic all-white crowd (“I liked it so much better when Debbie Reynolds sang it,” mutters one onlooker). Brown drives a flashy car to a former plantation house in Georgia, where a white family friend (Beau Bridges) flatters him and calls him the N-word in the same breath. Their meeting is warm, friendly and confined to the front porch.
In drawing out the personal and professional humiliations endured by Cooke and Brown, King and Powers needle at the idea that individual wealth, success and celebrity might not be enough to transcend the structural problem of racism. By early 1964, the civil rights movement was gaining popularity and momentum. Still, the struggle was hardly over. The Civil Rights Act didn’t pass into law until July of that year.
There are resonances between that historical moment’s buzzing, transformative energy and today’s global fight for black liberation. King seems to have been drawn to this in recent acting roles – Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, and the TV version of Watchmen, about the mythology of a white supremacist group, for which she won an Emmy last year. Kemp’s screenplay, then, which explores the nuances of anti-racist protest, is a smart choice for King’s first film as director.
What’s more, the conversations between Brown, Cooke, Clay and Malcolm X are still being had today. “If I win ’em over playing our music, I’m knocking down doors for everybody,” says Cooke, defending his right to determine his own creative and business prospects. Malcolm X is suspicious of white “gestures of patronage”. Brown points out the privilege of Malcolm’s fair skin, noting that “we are all far from the same”. King and Powers make a virtue of that difference, emphasising that black identity is not a monolith – a response to Cooke’s line that one of them doesn’t belong.
The ensemble cast electrifies Powers’s dialogue, jockeying between black power and integration, activism and commerce, spiritual clarity, pork chops and sex. Malcolm X is played by Ben-Adir with a fragility that subtly foreshadows the civil rights leader’s assassination the following year. His seriousness is rattled and his cool intellect brought to boiling point by the energetic and equally forceful Cooke; Odom is a lightning rod of charisma in the role. In their conviction – or perhaps arrogance – Cooke and Malcolm X are portrayed as two sides of the same coin.
• On Amazon Prime from 15 January
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: One Night in Miami review – Regina King’s electrifying directorial debut | Drama films