The Daily Gamecock

Review: Regina King shines in character-driven directorial debut 'One Night in Miami'

Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) in “One Night in Miami.”
Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) in “One Night in Miami.”

Movie: "One Night in Miami"

Release Date: Dec. 25, 2020

Director: Regina King

Runtime: 1 hour 54 minutes

Genre: Drama

Columnist's rating: A

It is February 1964 and a young, brash Cassius Clay, yet to become Muhammad Ali, has just become the heavyweight champion of the world. To celebrate, he invited legendary NFL player Jim Brown, renowned singer-songwriter Sam Cooke and polarizing human rights activist Malcolm X to the Hampton House in Miami. 

It soon becomes obvious this isn't the party the guests were expecting. 

“One Night in Miami” follows these 20th-century American icons through a night of debate, reflection and fiery arguments in a Miami motel room. Regina King’s directorial debut shines in this slow-burn adaptation of Kemp Powers’s play.

At the beginning of the film, Malcolm X, played by Kingsley Ben-Adir, is at a turning point in his life and needs the help of his friends. The relationship between him and his mentor, the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, grows tense as Malcolm becomes frustrated with his mentor’s stringent doctrine and scandalous lifestyle. At the same time, Clay, played by Eli Goree, shows an interest in converting to Islam.

Jim Brown, played by Aldis Hodge, and Sam Cooke, played by potential Oscar nominee Leslie Odom, Jr., are frustrated by the lack of a party, but they soon get caught up in the conversation. Malcolm becomes increasingly upset with Cooke’s desire to appeal to white audiences and his lack of outward support of the Civil Rights Movement.

Long philosophical and ideological debates between Cooke and Malcolm take up the majority of the runtime. This is where one can really tell “One Night in Miami” is an adaptation of a play, but it works.

The debates allow these actors to give the best performances of their young careers. Malcolm’s frustration is evident as he criticizes his peers for how they handle the responsibility of being black celebrities during a turning point in American history. However, Cooke pokes holes in Malcolm’s direct approach and explains there are many ways to support a movement.

Meanwhile, Clay and Brown play more subdued yet equally important roles in King’s fictional account of the real night of February 25, 1964. Clay wrestles with the dangers of publicly joining Islam and what it means for his career and celebrity, while Brown is beginning to think of quitting football for the far less physically taxing profession of becoming a movie star.

In a room full of stars, the director, Regina King, may shine the brightest. A film that takes place essentially at one location with very little action for two hours seems really boring. Yet, due to King’s brilliance and Powers’s amazing script, there is hardly a dull moment.

Small changes of setting, like walking to the motel’s roof or going to get a snack, make the story feel like it is tangibly moving on as the characters’ arcs progress simultaneously. The camerawork is similarly fantastic as the quiet cinematography never gets in the way, yet does a great job of continuing to make the movie look visually interesting.

It's unclear whether or not the night they spent together planted on this night for Clay to become the outspoken activist Muhammad Ali or whether Malcolm X really did criticize Sam Cooke for being not as lyrical as Bob Dylan. Despite this, the film does a damn great job in framing this one night as extremely important in shaping these four young men. The dialogue between them makes “One Night in Miami” one of the most gripping and exciting films of 2020.