Screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020, actress Regina King delivers a powerful directorial debut with her adaptation of Kemp Powers 2013 play One Night in Miami. Starring Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge and Leslie Odom Jr., four pivotal figures of black history meet for a fictionalised celebration at the The Hampton House, February 1964. Although the meeting really did take place, the details of it are scarcely known. Instead, One Night in Miami acts as an introspective reflection on the civil rights movement, greatly impacted by the four historical legends in the room.
Soul-singer Sam Cooke, footballer-turn-actor Jim Brown and infamous boxer Muhammad Ali all in one room, hosted by civil rights leader Malcolm X. What’s not to like? Primarily taking place in one hotel room, King invites us to meditate on the—still poignantly relevant—struggles of institutionalised racism without the action-packed rioting. Stripped of all the Hollywood glamour, it’s clear that the script derived from the theatre, focusing on intense dialogue and back-to-basics blocking.
Influenced, perhaps, by the structure of acclaimed classic 12 Angry Men (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1957), One Night in Miami is tightly focused on these four characters in this one location, emphasising the importance of what these men are in the midst of achieving. Looking back on their past, in the build-up to their world-changing future, the group attempt to undo the knots of injustice that pay Cooke’s bills but still keep him shackled to the service of white men. Malcolm X, in particular, brings forth some potent observations for viewers to mull over, challenging even his friends in a tension-fraught debate on whose really free.
Things aren’t as black and white as Malcolm claims, Cooke points out, with layers of racism reaching down even between light and dark-skinned “brothers”. King tackles these issues head-on, brushed with a stroke of that sleek 60s aesthetic that prevents the film getting too dull or claustrophobic. Though it may be a little plodding at times, One Night in Miami hails impressive performances in a heartfelt dramatization straight from the stage. King, fortunately, does not butcher her remake in the way many plays have been soullessly adapted for the screen. Instead, viewers are given an emotionally-charged what if? story that undoubtedly changed the course of American history.