Aspen Filmfest review: ‘One Night in Miami’
IF YOU WATCH…
What: ‘One Night in Miami’ at Aspen Filmfest
When: Book until noon Saturday, Oct. 17, watch through noon Sunday, Oct 18
How much: : $25/individual virtual ticket ($20/members); $100/5-film virtual pass ($80/members); $250/full virtual pass ($200/members)
Jammed with crackling conversation and a meeting of minds among four of the most influential and charismatic American men of the 20th century, Regina King’s directorial debut “One Night in Miami” is an irresistible and indispensable cinematic experience.
The new movie, screening at the virtual Aspen Filmfest through Sunday, is set on the February 1965 night in Miami when Cassius Clay — the future Muhammad Ali — shocked the world and unseated Sonny Liston as heavyweight champion. We see the end of that bout and Clay’s iconic over-the-ropes celebration, but the action of “One Night in Miami” is verbal and philosophical rather than physical (though it’s a gloves-off affair, no doubt).
It takes place largely in Malcolm X’s hotel room at the Hampton House, a Black-friendly motel, where the militant civil rights leader — played by Kingsley Ben-Adir — convenes Clay (Eli Goree) with NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr). His goal is to push these men to use their platforms for the advancement and expansion of Black rights in the U.S.
“A line has got to be drawn in the sand,” he tells the men during one heated exchange. “A line that says either you stand on the side with us or you stand on the side against us.”
The foursome did, in fact, spend that night together. There is no historical record of what they did or discussed, though, which is where screenwriter Kemp Powers comes in.
Powers imagines that this night was the turning point for Clay to join the Nation of Islam and change his name, for Brown to quit football for movies, and for Cooke to go public as an activist and write “A Change is Gonna Come.” For Malcolm X, the night’s transformation is yet more complex, as he accepts he’s likely to be murdered and prepares to share his autobiography and to break with the Nation’s leader Elijah Muhammad.
Powers wrote the screenplay based on his play of the same name. And, yes, like many stage adaptations the film is predominantly people talking in one location (the hotel room). But King, the Oscar-winning actress going behind the camera for the first time, does a remarkable job of making this a visually dynamic experience, showing us the end of Clay’s fight with Liston, Cooke at a gig at the Copacabana and Brown encountering the ugly racist underbelly in a family friend during a visit on the way to Florida and each of them on short side trips out of the hotel.
The film is pure catnip to people whose interests fall in the Venn diagram of civil rights, boxing and pop music history (we do exist!). If you know the biographies of these four men, you know how pivotal these choices were in their lives. To imagine — and this film is a work of imagination, of course — that all of these choices were made in the crucible of one night of intense talk in a Miami hotel room is fascinating.
But this is not some arcane history buff’s fare. King’s approachable style and these four extraordinarily charismatic performances make “One Night in Miami” an ideal introduction to the work of Malcolm X and the activism of Ali, Brown and Cooke for middle and high schoolers.
Playing outsize historical characters like these is difficult, but all four leads handle the parts without falling into the kinds of impressions and caricatures that make some biopics unbearable. Odom, of “Hamilton” fame, brings a simmering-under-the-surface intensity to Cooke, for example. And Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X is the stand-out. Following his star turn on “High Fidelity” and his role as Barack Obama in “The Comey Rule,” Ben-Adir is due to find a legion of fans and an armful of awards in 2020.
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