TIFF 2020 Film Review: One Night In Miami… ★★★★

Oscar and Golden Globe-winning actress Regina King (who added a fourth Emmy win to her name last night), makes an impressive directorial feature debut with One Night in Miami…, which screened at this year’s Venice International Film Festival on September 7th, making headlines as it marked the first film directed by a Black woman to be selected in the festival’s 77 year history. It went on to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on September 11th, where it was named first runner up in TIFF’s People’s Choice Awards over the weekend. It’s worth noting that King comes to the film having directed episodes of acclaimed television series such as Animal Kingdom, Scandal, This is Us, Shameless, The Good Doctor, and Insecure, as well as the TV movie The Finest, and having co-directed the feature documentary Story of a Village. That extensive experience is on clear display here.

Based on the 2013 NAACP Theatre Award-winning play by Kemp Powers, who adapts his own work for the screen, One Night in Miami… allows us to be in the room where it happened, creating a fictional account of real events. February 25th 1964 saw a 22 year-old Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) unexpectedly gain his first world boxing title when he beat heavyweight champ Sonny Liston (Aaron D. Alexander) in a technical knockout in Miami Beach. Following the victory he headed not to one of the city’s nightclubs to celebrate, but to the hotel room of his friend and mentor, activist and minister, Malcom X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), joined by the popular singer-songwriter-producer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). All iconic in their own right, One Night in Miami… imagines the dynamics between them and how the conversation might have flowed. The film opens with us being introduced to each of these men individually, starting in 1963, allowing us to get a glimpse of their respective worlds before the action moves to that night in Florida. As most of the film is set in a single location, the opening twenty minutes or so help it to feel more expansive while also providing context for themes to be explored later, such as the political atmosphere of civil rights era USA, and the animosity in some quarters towards Malcolm X (who would be assassinated just one year later). We also learn that Cassius Clay, encouraged by his friend, has decided to become part of the Nation of Islam—which will of course lead to his name becoming Muhammad Ali—while we see the racism encountered by Brown and Cooke, despite their substantial professional success, as well as succinctly gaining meaningful insight into the characters’ home lives.

Once inside the hotel room it is a riveting set up that remains consistently engaging as the evening progresses with four charismatic and nuanced performances at its heart. There are lighter moments and some humour along the way, as the tension builds and the conversation turns from celebrating Clay’s win to societal racism and their individual responsibilities in the fight for equality as significant Black figures, mostly led by Malcolm X, who is particularly critical of what he sees as Cooke’s pandering to a white audience that doesn’t respect him. There are powerful resonances to today’s Black Lives Matter movement and its urgency, as Malcolm X talks about “fighting for our lives” with Black people dying on the streets everyday. Powers’ taut, layered script is a compelling character study, and there’s skilful editing by Tariq Anwar and momentum injected by cinematographer Tami Reiker to help keep things visually interesting, along with some gorgeous production design by Barry Robison and Page Buckner. Musically, there’s a beautifully poignant jazz score by Terence Blanchard, while the film is a great showcase for Leslie Odom Jr.’s stunning vocals as Sam Cooke, with a stirring original song co-written by him on the end credits, Speak Now, a likely Oscar contender for Best Song. In fact all four central acting performances are worthy of serious consideration comes awards season. Look out for the brief but memorable appearance from Hollywood’s Jeremy Pope as Jackie Wilson. A fascinating, moving and thought-provoking evening spent in the intimate company of some of the country’s most notable figures.

By James Kleinmann

One Night in Miami… screened at TIFF 2020 on September 11th.

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