Regina King is one of the best actors working today, and now she has stepped behind the camera for her directorial debut One Night in Miami…, and shown she can also knock directing out of the park as well. What makes One Night such an auspicious debut is that it wrestles with questions you can tell have been on King’s mind. King, who won an Oscar in 2019 for her work in If Beale Street Could Talk, has been acting since the mid-80s and been in a collection of classic films including Boyz in the Hood, Friday, Jerry Maguire, and is likely to win her fourth Emmy for her work in last year’s Watchmen. But with all that recognition and success, what’s the next move? How does a Black entertainer weight their power and responsibility? Through a fictionalized meeting between four Black icons, One Night in Miami… skillfully explores what Black entertainers owe to themselves and to their communities, what power looks like, and how these conflicts and conversations may have begun during the Civil Rights Movement, but they’re far from over. With four outstanding performances at its center, One Night in Miami… is a fascinating and electrifying drama.
A prologue introduces us to the four Black legends at the center of the story. There’s Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) losing a fight at Wembley; R&B sensation Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) losing the crowd at the Copacabana; NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) wowing a fan in Saint Simon, but rejected from entering that racist fan’s home; and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) starting to break away from the National of Islam to find his own path. These four men come together in Miami after Clay becomes the heavyweight champion of the world, and in a hotel room they have some intense and occasionally heated discussions about what their responsibility is to the Black community and threading the needle between mainstream success and the push for civil rights.
Kemp Powers adapts his own stage play, and it’s a credit to King’s direction that the film never feels constricted. While the action is largely confined to a hotel room, King shows a mastery of camerawork so that the film never feels static or stuck. While some first-time directors feel the need to be flashy so that their work gets noticed, King has the confidence to rely on the subtle storytelling of close-ups and methodical editing. Everything King does appears designed for how best to service her actors and provide the best space for their performances. It’s the kind of assured and skilled direction designed around a skillset the director herself has built over the course of her career.
While other actors-turned-directors sometimes like to take control of the camera to further highlight themselves, King instead entrusts One Night in Miami… to four incredible talents. This is a movie that lives and dies with its actors. Without strong performances, the script could have easily devolved into a dry interplay of important figures discussing big ideas, but the passion and emotions come from incredible actors inhabiting these historical giants. Casting Tony- and Grammy-winner Odom Jr. as Cooke is a stroke of genius. Goree has all of Clay’s bravado, but never renders it into caricature. Hodge’s intensity and presence reminds us why he’s one of the most exciting actors working today.
And then there’s Ben-Adir. While this is really more of an ensemble, you could make the argument that Malcolm X is really the moral center as he pushes Black entertainers like Clay, Cooke, and Brown to use their power to further the cause of Black people, and they push back for wanting to dictate that advancement on their own terms. Malcolm X has to go toe-to-toe with everyone in this movie in some way, and Ben-Adir does it masterfully. Since 1992, the definitive on-screen performance of Malcolm X was Denzel Washington’s Oscar-nominated turn, but Ben-Adir puts his own stamp on the activist icon. His Malcolm X is one not playing to the crowd, but playing to his friends, caught between his idealism and recognizing the individualism of these fellow great men. That kind of conflict is difficult to capture, and yet there’s an odd sort of tenderness and vulnerability in Ben-Adir’s performance that makes it come alive.
Each of these actors is never attempting an impression, but rather inhabit their famous figure, and it makes for a far more personal and introspective story about what Black people will do with their power. I was riveted by an exchange between Cooke and Malcolm X about whether it’s better to use music for cultural power or economic power. What does it mean to be a cultural icon if your checks are being signed by white people? What obligations do these men have when it’s hard enough just to do your job of being the best boxer or the best singer or the best running back? There aren’t easy answers, and the conflict of trying to find those answers gives One Night in Miami… its glorious spark.
Given its handful of settings, there are a few times when One Night drags a bit (live performance gives stage plays an energy that film struggles to match), but never for long and never to the point where you lose interest in these characters. We’re in a moment where activism and celebrity can’t be disconnected, and a celebrity that wants to stay apolitical is seen as irresponsible. Rather than simply accepting that as the new state of play, King breaks down what that responsibility means for her and her fellow Black entertainers. Some may be skittish about Black icons discussing civil rights as if they’re about to watch a lecture, but King and her amazing cast have crafted a compelling conversation that you wish would never end.