It’s always fun to fantasize about what the various greats in a wide array of fields would say to one another if they ever met. It’s a great hypothetical that can be applied to just about any aspect of society or the arts. What kind of a conversation could have taken place had Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gotten the chance to meet Mohandas Gandhi? Could William Shakespeare even get arrested in modern-day Hollywood? What if John Lennon got to write a song with Beethoven? Hell, the entire Judicial Branch of our government concerns itself with what the American Founding Fathers intended when drafting the Constitution. How a great mind could be applied to circumstances outside their field of expertise, or how they’d interact with seemingly incompatible peers is a thought experiment that’s gone on for centuries. So it’s only fitting that one of the best films of 2020 centers on that very tantalizing abstract.
In her directorial debut, Oscar-winning actress Regina King brings us One Night in Miami…, adapted by Kemp Powers from his stage play of the same name from 2013. A fictionalized story in the aftermath of Muhammad Ali’s victory over Sonny Liston in 1964, the film places Ali (then still called Cassius Clay), Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown – all of whom were real-life friends – into a single hotel room and just has them deliver pointed insight despite their disparate careers and motivations, all while at the top of their respective games. In doing so, not only do we get one of the best acted films of the year, but one of the smartest, due to King’s skill behind the camera and Powers’ poignant dialogue.
The core four performances are all stellar. Kingsley Ben-Adir carries Malcolm X with a controlled dignity barely masking righteous fury, while Eli Goree is able to reenact Ali’s speech patterns and swagger with expert-level skill. Both of these actors are in their first major film roles, and I hope this is a star-making moment for both of them. Aldis Hodge, who may be getting typecast as real-life football players between this and 2019’s Brian Banks, is excellent as Jim Brown, who remains the greatest NFL player of all time (screw that cheating SOB Brady). Brown went to Syracuse, my alma mater, and I met him a couple times at campus functions, and Hodge’s demeanor in the film is about what I’d imagine a young Brown was like in the 60s.
And then there’s Leslie Odom, Jr. as Sam Cooke, who is just amazing. Singing full voice just as Cooke did (and co-writing the excellent “Speak Now,” which is shortlisted for Original Song), Odom shines as a diamond among diamonds with his performance, injecting each moment with so much soul that even his darkest moments in the film feel like a grand serenade. He’s getting a lot of buzz for Supporting Actor and it’s very much deserved. Honestly, you could nominate any of these four and I wouldn’t argue it for half a second, but there’s something about Odom’s performance that just floored me. Maybe it’s because “A Change is Gonna Come” is literally my second favorite song of all time (behind “Imagine”) and I cry every time I hear it, and Odom sang the absolute hell out of it. I don’t know. I won’t rule it out.
Anyway, because this is an adaptation of a stage play, it falls to Regina King to make it feel like it’s not simply the play on a screen. It needs to feel unique and distinct from its source material. Thankfully, she’s more than up to the task, succeeding in two major areas to give the work a more cinematic aesthetic. One is the economy of space within the Miami hotel room. Like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, she’s able to make the most of the set and blocks the actors within it in ways that feel intimate without being confined. There are three rooms in the unit – living/bedroom, kitchen, and bath – and she makes use of all of those areas for individual scenes and as a way to keep the actors in motion. It’s not “upstage” or “stage right,” it’s “on the bed,” “at the fridge,” “over at the record player,” “in the closet,” or “at the sink.” That allows for multiple camera angles and lighting schemes – brilliantly illustrated as the paranoid Malcolm checks the various lamps for FBI bugs – as well as just making the space feel bigger than it actually is, a fitting environment for these larger than life personalities.
The second method is expanding the story outside of that room that Kemp Powers imagined so wonderfully for his play. In a moment that’s both gorgeous for its scenery as well as its thematic heft, the film opens with each of the four leads as individuals in their respective circles, all of them showing their prowess while still facing racism and the idea of not being “good enough” for polite (read: white) society. Ali fights an English heavyweight at Wembley Stadium and is roundly jeered until he takes one shot at the end of the round and falls on the ropes, only to be saved by the bell (he eventually won the match). Sam Cooke lives his dream of performing at the Copacabana Club only for the bourgeois white patrons to leave when he sings a mainstream song. Malcolm is presented on the news as a violent, racist, terrorist in a sound bite where he’s actually quite calm and even-handed. Jim Brown visits a man in his hometown (played by Beau Bridges) who speaks the world of him because of his skills on the gridiron, but still refuses to let a black man enter his home, casually demanding that he remain on the porch.
All of these scenes have great cinematography, lighting, and staging, while also dispensing with clunky exposition in favor of genuine character moments. If you somehow come into this movie not knowing who these people are, this opening gives you all the information you need with a minimum of dialogue, which contrasts nicely with the text-heavy exchanges of the main story. Even when we’re at the hotel, King never misses an opportunity to move the action outside, be it to the rooftop or a parking lot to maintain the emotional closeness of the characters, who all share a great rapport, without forcing them to be physically close at all times. It’s really well done.
But apart from the technical side, King succeeds in directing the actors to get the most out of them. That’s because she allows them to perform these huge personalities with the nuance they deserve and require. Despite the collective history in that hotel room, no one there is pigeon-holed into one archetype. Ben-Adir’s Malcolm is passionate and authoritative while also being insecure and fearful. Goree excels at depicting Ali’s cock-of-the-walk confidence as well as his general naïveté. Odom plays Cooke as a shrewd businessman and passionate artist. Hodge is both stoic as Jim Brown but also pragmatic while being the most empathetic. Even when we know who these people are, the heights they reached, and the public personae they showed the world, you cannot pin them down as characters, which means that anything is possible. That’s a credit to their skill as performers as well as King’s ability to bring out their best. Being an actress at the top of her own game gives her the credibility to draw that out, and it’s spectacular. Then you bring in Powers’ resonant dialogue – which could just as easily apply today as it did nearly 60 years ago – that aligns with each man’s strengths without feeling like it was assigned at random.
We’re getting ever closer to the Oscar Blitz, and there’s no telling just how much attention and recognition this film will get. But no matter what the Academy says, this will go down as one of the best movies 2020 had to offer, and hopefully it will be the launching point for a lot of success to come for King as a director and for this cast at large. Expertly staged, supremely well-acted, cleverly written, and just all-around enjoyable, this is a movie about four men who’ve reached the top, all through different avenues, and it would be fitting if it got the acknowledgement it deserves as part of the 2020 pantheon.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What hypothetical conversations among greats do you imagine? Do you think you could last even one round against Ali in his prime, and if so, will you share your drugs with me? Let me know!