One Night in Miami…

One Might in Miami… is an extraordinary film. For one, it’s an accomplished work from a first-time director, Regina King, already in the history books for winning Best Supporting Actress for 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk (https://film-prof.com/2019/01/20/if-beale-street-could-talk/). It has a nearly unbelievable plot, but only in the “Wow, this really happened!” way. Imagine being in on a conversation with Cassius Clay (right before becoming Muhammad Ali), NFL star/actor Jim Brown, Malcolm X, and legendary blues singer Sam Cooke (“You Send Me,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” etc.), all together in a hotel room after Clay’s big (and surprise) victory over Sonny Liston. Playwright Kemp Powers (writer/director of Pixar’s recent Soul) did imagine just that a few years ago, and the film is based on his play about their night together.

Reimaging a stage work always has its challenges, but eviscerating a work’s theatrical roots isn’t always the most cinematic thing one can do. Yes, the film is talky, but what glorious, revealing talk. Yes, it recalls its stage roots, especially in the first 20 minutes or so. But when it settles into its most contained space (a hotel room), the film really takes off. That’s when the other extraordinary elements come in most strongly: the dialogue and the performances.

What is so engaging and thought-provoking about the dialogue is that it presents perspectives and struggles of these four black leaders (leaders in very different ways) in ways that point to larger issues without making its four main characters into either caricatures or symbols. That in itself is astonishing. No one simply “stands in” for this philosophy or that oppressed group. It can be read that way, but I would invite anyone interpreting the film this way to look deeper at the well-etched characters here who are more than embodiments, but individuals who are wildly succeeding in their respective fields, yet are nevertheless fully aware of the racial struggles around them. They each have a sense of how they connect to the struggle, but have questions about their own identities in the middle of it all, and questions (and sometimes challenges) for their friends on what they are doing and sometimes what they think their friends ought to be doing. To say more would be to rob the viewer of one of the film’s delights.

As one might imagine with a great actress like King as a director, the performances here are excellent. Hamilton’s Leslie Odom, Jr. is getting the most attention for his work as Sam Cooke, partly because the part calls for serious acting talent combined with an ability to sing like the velvet-toned Cooke. Odom is wonderful, and may well win two Oscars, one for his performance and the other for writing the film’s end-credit song, “Speak Now.” Odom is a first-rate actor and first-rate singer, and yes, does excellent work here.

But I was just as impressed with relative newcomer Kingsley Ben-Adir, a Londoner best known for High Fidelity, Peaky Blinders, and Vera. His performance as Malcolm X is quieter than the other three, and the waters run deeper than what Odom, Jr. does with Sam Cooke. Ben-Adir is simultaneously angry and haunted, intensely stubborn and surprisingly kind and understanding. It’s a bravura performance, and worthy of all the praise that Odom, Jr. is deservedly getting. Watch him closely—you can see and almost hear him thinking, processing, considering, evaluating. His performance alone would be worth seeing the film.

It almost seems a denigration to say that the other two performances are not quite as good, because they are excellent in their own right. Finding someone who looks like Ali and can simulate fighting in the ring like Ali, and yet be a real actor in the room where it happens—that’s something of a triumph. Eli Goree, known for his TV work before this, does a great job, but just doesn’t reach the heights of Odom, Jr. or Ben-Adir. Aldis Hodge does an equally good job as Jim Brown, but other than a heart-breaking and angering scene in the beginning of the film, he isn’t given the opportunities of the other three.

Much has been and will be written about the different social, historical, religious, and political perspectives that ricochet around the room during their night together. No one will know how close this fictional rendering of a real event comes to hitting the mark, but the film will likely provide an endless wellspring of thoughts on power (which all four have in different ways) and how best to use that power—in the context of racial struggles, or even beyond that. What is selfishness or selflessness? What is simply stubbornness? What do we owe our brothers and sisters—and who exactly are those brothers and sisters? The women in the first have very little to say; does that matter here? What were the responsibilities of these accomplished men at this critical junction in their lives—and how might that speak to us today? What did they see from their high perch, and how accurate was their sight?

I’ll leave it to other writers to go down those paths. I would rather suggest that you go see the film, and enjoy the characters first as fleshed-out humans at an important moment in all their lives, loving their friends and sometimes strongly opposing their actions and thoughts. The film’s big triumph beyond the writing, the directing, and the acting, is in presenting four human beings who happen to be African Americans, and who find themselves in the middle of American’s 1960’s racial tensions, all the while dealing very personally with life choices and decisions that they can only hope their friends can understand. In an overly political and polarizing time, it would be easy to see the film as a presentation of possible conflicting viewpoints. That would be a mistake. In spite of the whirlwind of ideas presented here, set in this difficult and stressful time in our history, this is primarily a film with living, breathing, conflicted humans. I would encourage anyone watching it to receive it this way first. The film has a heart—not a political one, not a religious one, not a social one—but a human one.

About Mark DuPré

Retired (associate) pastor at a Christian church. Retired film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Husband for 45+ years to the lovely and talented Diane. Father to three children and father-in-law to three more amazing people. I continue some ministry duties even though retired from the pastoral position. Right now I'm co-writing a book, working on a documentary (screenwriter and assistant director), and creating a serious musical drama (I am writing the book and lyrics).
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