TIFF 2020

One Night in Miami review – brilliantly acted alternate history

Regina King’s directorial debut is a formidable what-if centred around four Black American icons, bolstered by great performances

One of the most talked-about moments in recent hit basketball documentary series The Last Dance was a segment on Michael Jordan’s reluctance to comment on politics. A rare apolitical celebrity with an unrivalled platform, Jordan’s cold neutrality sparked disappointment from the likes of Barack Obama. One Night in Miami, which marks actor-turned-filmmaker Regina King’s impressive feature debut, is about four Black celebrities who didn’t have that luxury.

Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) never really met in Miami on February 25, 1964, the night that the 22-year-old Clay became the World Heavyweight Champion and reportedly made the decision to become Muhammad Ali. But playwright Kemp Powers (adapting his own work for this film adaptation) imagines that day as a turning point in the lives of all four. Despite the odd unwanted hallmark of a traditional biopic – clunky contextual information included – these four brilliant characterisations quickly distract from any glimpses of inexperience, as King understands how to focus on substance and sincerity.

The enticing premise works to a brilliant extent. In large part thanks to stellar performances across the board – and stunning work from Ben-Adir and Hamilton’s Odom Jr. in particular – One Night in Miami is a tremendously moving film and a profound alternative history in its own right. Crucially, King and cinematographer Tami Reiker bring some much needed style to what could have otherwise been a visually dull affair.

The primary tension here is between Malcolm X and the decidedly cautious Cooke, a suave showman whose predominantly white fan base (at least in 1964) prevented any shows of radicalism. The minister tells him sternly in a tense encounter: “The only person white people seem to like round here is you.” He’s not wrong, although there’s plenty of learning to be done on all sides – ours included.

It’s not a spoiler to say that One Night in Miami builds to quite the payoff: Cooke writing one of the best songs of the 20th century; Clay's transformation into the most charismatic man in the world, an icon of American Islam. This film doesn’t fixate on either man’s finest hour, but it does pose a compelling mythology as to how they got there. That One Night in Miami also marks King’s arrival as bonafide filmmaking talent makes it all the more sweeter.

One Night in Miami was screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival 2020.

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