It was hard not to compare Regina King’s One Night in Miami with a play I love: Picasso at the Lapin Agile by Steve Martin. Yes, he is my hero so any excuse to mention him in any review is welcome in this writer’s mind but it was impossible to not have my brain is drawn back to the world he created in 1993 where Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein met in Paris in October 1904 to discuss life, love, prostate problems. More importantly, they were on the cusp of their greatest achievements – the theory of relativity and painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
We mention this wonderful play as it has much in common with King’s debut feature, focusing in the main on four men who were on the cusp of their great accomplishments and changing the world forever. Here, those men are Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) – who would become Muhammed Ali -, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jnr), and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), coming together one night in February 1964 (it really did happen in some shape or form) to trade jokes, anecdotes, aspirations and how, if they banded together, they could help force a change much needed across the world at that moment.
Broadening his play with King, writer Kemp Powers conceived of the idea in 2013 and it was powerful then but somehow it has become even more pertinent in 2020, a year in which the whole world is watching. Three of the men are hoping for a night on the town, a party atmosphere to congratulate Cassius on his defeat of Sonny Liston hours before but Malcolm X has other ideas.
What follows is something wonderful to behold: four minds, four men, many pearls of wisdom coming together to see if, maybe, they can help to change hearts and minds in the USA. They are all at different crossroads, questioning their next steps and whether those steps are truly what each wants, and while they are all aiming for the same goal, each has reservations and opinions to share and in that hotel room, magic happens.
Meticulously crafted in look, style, and sound, King’s debut isn’t massively showy but it doesn’t need to be, supporting her four tremendous leads as they spar with each other through some evocative, eloquent and powerful dialogue and overpower any shortcomings the film has with breaking free from its theatre roots. Add to the mix Terence Blanchard’s soulful, delicate score, Tami Reiker’s excellent cinematography, and Barry Robison’s meticulous production all adding further depth and authenticity to the piece, even if at times it feels confined.
And what of the four actors front and centre? All are magnificent and while it would be easy to pick one as the shining light here, to do so would be an injustice against such a formidable ensemble: each has their moment to shine – with Odom Jnr’s performance of A Change Is Gonna Come one such highlight – and all revel in them but together they sparkle which makes the lack of an ensemble Oscar even more frustrating.
In a year where the political, social, and economic landscape has changed forever, One Night in Miami while a superbly realised and performed film, is a timely reminder than when the best minds come together, change can come. That message is needed now more than ever before.
Drama | USA, 2020 | 15 | BFI London Film Festival | 11th-12th October 2020 | Amazon Studios | Dir.Regina King | Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr.