TIFF 2020: “One Night in Miami” eloquently speaks out for racial justice

TIFF 2020 One Night in Miami Regina King's "One Night in Miami." (TIFF '20)

Regina King’s directorial debut delivers a resonant message through a phenomenal cast and thought-provoking screenplay.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.)

In a recent Hollywood Reporter interview, Regina King recently highlighted the urgency of her feature directorial debut One Night in Miami, in light of this year’s resurgent Black Lives Matter movement. As the film now unspools on the fall festival circuit, its social relevance is indeed made abundantly clear.

Of course, One Night in Miami isn’t the first film to speak to the ongoing oppression of America’s black populations. But while recent dramas like The Hate U Give and Blindspotting may speak more directly to the unjust police brutality of today, the historical perspective of One Night in Miami proves to be equally resonant. 

Adapted from Kemp Powers’ play of the same name, One Night in Miami envisages a lively encounter in a Miami hotel room between four of the most celebrated black figures of the 20th century. Namely, boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), football player Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), singer-songwriter Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and human rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir).

The special occasion for these friends is the celebration of Clay’s victory over Sonny Liston in 1964, thereby granting him the title of heavyweight champion of the world. What promises to be a lighthearted evening of camaraderie gradually becomes more serious, however, as the quartet debate their roles in the prevailing civil rights movement of the time. 

But first, we meet our esteemed icons in less auspicious circumstances. For Clay, it’s a lackluster boxing effort at the famous Wembley Park in London. For Brown, it’s an offer of fake generosity from a professed white ally. For Cooke, it’s a Copacabana performance met with indifference from a majority white crowd. And in the case of Malcolm X, it’s the realization of his waning support among the leadership of the Nation of Islam. 

While we rarely see the athlete characters at work, the film’s riveting debates are as rousing as any sporting encounter.

This prelude to the narrative’s main event is one of several astute filmmaking choices made throughout. While their reputation precedes them, it humanizes these larger-than-life figures and brings Miami’s questions surrounding black empowerment into sharp focus. Do their individual success stories truly signify equal opportunity? Or do we need a more concerted fight for racial justice?

To debate these questions, One Night in Miami enlists the talents of an outstanding cast. Ben-Adir is particularly compelling as the tortured Malcolm X. His measured performance exudes a wisdom that flies in the face of his brash public image. Meanwhile, Goree is also memorable as he embodies Clay’s boundless energy and charisma.

Hodge and Odom Jr. also get their chances to shine, thanks to King’s subtle but sophisticated direction which allows all the performers to breathe life into their characters. The camerawork is never flashy, but its judicious use of close-ups effectively captures all the emotional beats, while wider shots evocatively frame the shifting dynamics between the men. 

But it’s Kemp Powers’ eloquent screenplay which truly fuels the action. While we rarely see the athlete characters at work, the film’s riveting debates are as rousing as any sporting encounter. At seemingly opposing ends of the ideological spectrum are the grassroots organizer Malcolm X and the more individualistic Cooke. Meanwhile, Clay and Brown provide their assists with thoughtful points on such topics as religion and colorism. 

Along the way, egos are bruised. But as true friends, their interactions bring humor too. The puritanical Malcolm X is the early butt of the jokes as he offers vanilla ice cream as a substitute for the usual celebratory liquor. On the other hand, Clay’s braggadocious personality amusingly conflicts with the self-discipline required of his impending conversion to Islam and his new identity as Muhammad Ali. But those lighter moments are only brief relief for the painful conversations at hand.

At a pivotal moment, Cooke croons his famous hit single “A Change Is Gonna Come.” As we watch One Night In Miami 56 years after the song’s release, those lyrics are a further reminder that racial justice in America has been a long time coming. And we are still wondering when that definitive change is gonna come.

One Night in Miami Trailer:

Shane Slater
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