The Movie Waffler BFI London Film Festival 2020 Review - ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI | The Movie Waffler

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BFI London Film Festival 2020 Review - ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI

one night in miami review
Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown gather to discuss their roles in the cultural movement of 1960s America.

Review by Musanna Ahmed

Directed by: Regina King

Starring: Kingsley Ben-Addir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Michael Imperioli

After warming up with music videos and television episodes, Emmy and Oscar-winning actress Regina King returns to the director’s seat for her feature film debut One Night in Miami, based on Kemp Powers’ stage play of the same name. The story imagines the conversations between Jim Brown, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Muhammad Ali, when he was still Cassius Clay, when they gather in a Miami hotel room following Clay’s victory over Sonny Liston in 1964. They have wide-ranging conversations about their roles as black men in '60s America, a turbulent time of cultural upheaval and the pursuit of racial equality.

one night in miami review

The theatrical origins are a little too evident here. King is determined to realise Powers’ original work in its exact form as much as possible so, consequently, there’s little space for the camera to manoeuvre within the four walls of the room and little time to be creative with the sequencing of events. As a result, much of the film feels like filmed theatre, a type of cinema that has a much slower rhythm with a plain visual sense that may not keep one engaged at all times.


However, there are some subtle ways that King keeps her film aesthetically interesting to the keen observer. One is how she carefully frames each shot to allow as many combinations of the four icons together in the same image, effectively using the mirrors in the room for such a purpose. Secondly, the completely tranquil approach somehow works to bring things down to Earth - we simply watch these icons shoot the shit in between their discussions on race, success and America, as the filmmakers give a wide berth to the grandeur of celebrity.

one night in miami review

As well as the important dialogue on American society, the individuals touch on the big decisions that they would eventually go through with - Jim Brown’s intention to quit football and start acting, Clay considering joining the Nation of Islam - and heated discussions such as Malcolm’s criticism of Cooke performing for a largely white demographic. We know the film is fictionalised but the idea that these bold discussions took place in this unadorned space is convincing because of the film’s unassuming presentation. Furthermore, I appreciate the filmmakers for taking this approach rather than trying to fit the narrative around some famous existing pictures, such as the one of Clay and Cooke in the studio together or Malcolm taking pictures of them on his personal camera.


Anyway, the stylistic choices aren’t really why one should see this film. One Night in Miami is entirely about the actors and, well, the casting department deserves the highest accolades. It’s a phenomenal ensemble composed of Kingsley Ben-Adir (The OA, Peaky Blinders) as Malcolm X, Eli Goree (Ballers, The 100) as Cassius Clay, Aldis Hodge (Clemency, Underground) as Jim Brown, and Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr in 'Hamilton') as Sam Cooke. The quartet must have spent many months preparing because firstly, their chemistry is incredible, and secondly, they all evidence strong independent study of their real-life counterparts, inserting fine flourishes into their performances even when they’re just lingering in the background.

one night in miami review

Odom Jr. has some legitimate pipes on him in the handful of singing scenes and Goree perfectly replicates the boxing style of the Louisville Lip for the opening sequence of the film when Clay fights Liston. I love how Hodge moulds his voice to portray Jim Brown, and Ben-Adir is utterly sensational in a role already perfected by Denzel Washington. If I was to gamble on Oscar nominations, Ben-Adir for Best Supporting Actor would be my biggest wager. There are also some smaller, enjoyable performances from The Wire’s Lance Reddick as Brother Kareem, Malcolm X’s security detail, and The SopranosMichael Imperioli as boxing trainer Angelo Dundee. No matter how plainly theatrical a film may be, the actors can make or break it, and here they’re nothing short of extraordinary.

One Night in Miami screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020.

2020 movie reviews