In light of the #OscarsSoWhite smackdown that the AMPAS’ board of directors rightfully received a few years ago, it will be interesting to see whether this year’s Oscar nominees will be more diverse than it has been in the past. I’m optimistic it will be with the late Chadwick Boseman being a near a shoo-in to win the Best Supporting Actor award for his performance in MA’S RAINEY BLACK BOTTOM. Viola Davis will probably get a Best Actress nomination for her turn as Ma Rainey in the same film, Chloé Zhao should get a Best Director nomination for her film, NOMADLAND, and SOUL could become only the fourth animated film in Oscar history to be nominated for a Best Picture award. Radha Blank may even get a Best Original Screenplay nomination for her film, THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD VERSION. Oscar winner Regina King (IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK) has just added her name to the list of strong Oscar candidates with her feature directorial debut, ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI.
Based on the stageplay of the same name by Kemp Powers (SOUL), who also wrote the screenplay, ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI tells the fictional story of a meeting on February 25, 1964 of civil rights activist Malcolm X, heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay, NFL football star Jim Brown and singer-songwriter Sam Cooke at the Hampton House in Miami after Clay surprises everyone but himself and takes the world heavyweight title away from Sonny Liston. Each of the four African-American cultural icons is at a personal crossroads in his life. X (Kingsley Ben-Adir, KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD; TV’s THE COMEY RULE) has become disillusioned with the Nation of Islam and its leader, and is considering leaving the organisation. Clay (Eli Goree, RACE, TV’s RIVERDALE) is considering becoming a Muslim and joining the NOI. Brown (Aldis Hodge, HIDDEN FIGURES; TV’s LEVERAGE) has accepted his first role in a movie and is mulling over hanging up his cleats for good to become a Hollywood action hero. And Cooke (Tony and Grammy winner Leslie Odom Jr., HAMILTON; MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS) is tired of writing and singing fluffy songs for White people to enjoy and wants to write something that speaks to his people and their struggles. The irony that Bob Dylan, a White boy from Minnesota, could write a song like Blowin’ In the Wind is not lost on him. As the night progresses, the men challenge themselves and each other to reveal their inner thoughts, dreams and hopes – not just of and to themselves but of and to each other as well.
While the four men really did meet up that night, Brown, the only one of the four who is still alive today, has never said publicly what they talked about in that room so it’s quite possible that they were just four legends coming together to drink and celebrate their friend’s victory. ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI does move timelines around a little for dramatic effect. Clay did not announce that night that he was changing his name to Muhammad Ali. That happened a week later. Cooke did not write his civil rights anthem, “A Change Is Gonna Come”, after that evening either. In reality, the song had already been released as a B-side on a 45 a few months earlier. And while Malcolm X’s murder is mentioned as a coda, Cooke’s murder, which happened a few months earlier, is not. Both murders occurred under circumstances that even today have never been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
Even so, KING hits an absolute home run here. While most of the action takes place in one small room, King and cinematographer Tami Reiker never make the film seem unduly stagey, shooting some scenes in the hotel’s parking lot, walkway and rooftop as well, and giving us all a fly-on-the-wall perch where we can watch destiny unfold. Each actor has his moment in the spotlight and they all deliver the goods. Not one actor is stronger or weaker than the other, though I’ll admit to now having a man-crush on Ben-Adir. There’s always a risk when playing a well-known historical figure, and especially one who has been played on screen before (Will Smith played Ali and Denzel Washington played Malcolm X), that comparisons will be made but these actors show us sides of their characters that we’ve never seen on film before. The men (i.e., the characters) are all well aware of what their societal obligations are at this pivotal time in American history yet baring their souls to themselves and to others without judgment being placed upon them is not something that any of them has much experience in, if at all. Though their methods may differ, they’re all in agreement to want to make this world a better place and that this is the time for them to do their part to make change come sooner rather than later.
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI is available now on Amazon Prime Video. It is a fabulous film and will, without a doubt, be in my favourite 10 films of 2020.
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