One Night in Miami (2020)

Baggies Nomination #2:

“One Night in Miami” (2020) is Oscar winner and beloved actor Regina King’s directorial debut, and she brings us a unique and invigorated conception as we imagine behind the curtain conversations during some of the most memorable moments in history. The film features Malcolm X (played by magnificent up and comer Kinglsey Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (a fantastic portrayal by Leslie Odom Jr.), Eli Goree as Cassius Clay (on the brink of his re-emergence as Muhammad Ali), and Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown.

The film marks the first to ever Venice Film Festival premiere by an African-American female director (which occurred on September 7, 2020). The screenplay was written by Kemp Powers, and it turns out it was a big year for him because he was also a co-director on the Pixar animated project “Soul.” After reading the script, King felt compelled to bring it to screen and even has described the story as a companion piece for “Watchmen.” On February 24th in the year of 1964, the four greats shared celebratory ice cream in the wake of the famed boxer, Clay, winning his first World Heavyweight Championship. In real life, that is all we know. However, in the film, the ice cream trip also includes a little music and a whole lot of conversation imagined for the screenplay itself. In similar strain to “The Two Popes” (2019), the film does not claim to know what conversations could have occurred in actuality, but rather, develops thoughtful dialogue based on what we know about the famous figures’ ideologies, demeanor, relationships and experiences. It is a risky idea – presuming to know what some of the most beloved historical figures might have said behind closed doors, but when done well, it can be a masterful way to humanize these characters. Through light banter and the more tense discussions, these films are able to shed light on the issues that weighed on these figures and allows audiences to contemplate their own responsibility and philosophy about such things. Lucky for Powers and King, “One Night in Miami” succeeds.

To help brush up on the significance of these men at this particular time in their careers: Malcolm X is mastering the courage to leave the Nation of Islam, where he serves as its most charismatic preacher, but has since lost confidence in its leaders. He is quietly planning to branch off into his own ministry, but in the meantime has recruited the young and vibrant boxing legend Cassius Clay. Clay is set to announce his affiliation with the Nation of Islam the next morning. Meanwhile, the All-American football player, James “Jim” Brown, is wrestling with his opportunity to become an on-screen actor and the profundity of that, and what that would mean for his NFL career with the Cleveland Browns. And, the honeyed Sam Cooke has made it as one of the few Black Americans to own their own successful record label, but is being pressed by Malcolm to stop pandering to white crowds and use his artistic independence to magnify the Civil Rights movement.

Sam Cooke had just released his melodic hit “A Change Is Gonna Come” – a premonition that resounds through the entirety of the film. Cooke ended up killed in his Los Angeles motel room by the end of the year. Malcolm would be famously assassinated in February of the following year. Two years later, Muhammad Ali was banned from boxing and facing a prison sentence for draft evasion during the Vietnam War. Brown transitioned from the NFL to Hollywood in 1966, and of the four is the only one still alive today. Though his story is left with a significantly happier ending than his friends, the film fails to acknowledge Jim Brown’s history of violence.

Brown is a hero, but he is also a coward. He emerged as a strong voice for the Civil Rights movement in 1967, was voted to the Pro Bowl each of his nine seasons, and managed to have a magnanimous career in two seemingly impossible fields. But he is also a woman-beater. He has been the center of a series of accusations that go from the 1960s all the way through the 1990s, all without conviction. The repeating accusations and their descriptions make it clear that at times in his life, Brown considered women as part of the problem facing his black family, especially if they asserted themselves too much in the context of his life, according to sportswriter Howard Bryant, who is writing a book that intends to re-look at the life and times of Brown through a new lens. He explains that though the accusations are horrific, they were not viewed as horrific during the times they were happening, and instead, were viewed with a “nudge and a wink.” If the cycle of violence against women is ever going to end, it is crucial that these events are acknowledged and discussed, and not brushed under the floorboards of history, only leaving the positive sentiments remaining. In recent times, especially with the wake of the MeToo Movement, many historical “heroes” are being viewed with the complicated realities that are often conveniently left out of their narratives (i.e., George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Christopher Columbus), and it would be remiss to do the same here.

It would not be unreasonable for King and Powers to have left Brown’s violent temper out of the film as not to oversaturate the story which was already dissecting a plethora of topics in great detail. It also could be to simply not wish to detract from the positive impact of the stories of leads by illuminating the sinister truth of one, especially one that aligns with the negative stereotypes against black men. That being said, it is important to speak to the purity of the “true events” of the film, which is at the end of the day – a fictional one.

That being said, “One Night in Miami” is excellent. It reads like a stage play and was written as a stageplay originally. It brings to mind 2020’s “Boys in the Band” in that way, taking place primarily in one main location, and centered around the performances and dialogue. The most outstanding depiction (though awards season is leaning differently) is Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm. Ben-Adir not only entirely leaves behind his English accent, but he delivers each line with a cadence and conviction that is uncanny without feeling like a caricature. He is perfect for the role, and it was unexpected, especially after seeing Malcom portrayed by many greats before (Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Nigel Thatch). When speaking about what drew her to the project, Regina King said, “I [also] thought Kemp’s words were a love letter to the Black man’s experience. As an audience member, I feel like I don’t often get the opportunity to see our men realized onscreen the way we see them in real life.” The power of “One Night in Miami” is that exactly. It is a look at the black man’s experience, illuminating how even at the top there is a relentless pressure to exist as a representation of an entire race and how differently these pressures can manifest.

The film received three nominations at the 78th Golden Globe Awards: Best Director for King, Best Supporting Actor for Odom Jr., and Best Original Song, and is anticipated to be a top contender at the Academy Awards. It is the type of film that could and should be watched by wide audiences, not seen as non-fictional truth in place of a documentary, but to spark important conversations and inspire further learning. A profound debut for King and a triumph for Powers.

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