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One Night in Miami... : Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // R // December 7, 2021
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Justin Remer | posted February 23, 2022 | E-mail the Author

The Movie:

One Night in Miami... dramatizes a historically documented meeting between Muhammad Ali (then called Cassius Clay), Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown in a Miami motel room on the night Ali won the world heavyweight title from Sonny Liston in 1964. Well, that is to say, the meeting is documented as having happened, but no one knows what the four African American icons-to-be actually said in that motel room. Writer Kemp Powers adapts (and slightly widens the scope of) his own speculative stageplay for the silver screen, and he seems to suspect these men were all wondering about their respective destinies and legacies. Would these four coast by on the flimsy charms of celebrity allotted to them by the white establishment or take on the responsibility of leading -- in their own ways -- in the struggle for equality?

Before seeing the film, I had heard quite a few people grumble about the staginess of One Night in Miami..., but I think first-time feature director Regina King (an Oscar winner for her acting performance in If Beale Street Could Talk) does an admirable job of blocking the action in a way that never feels either stale or contrived. So maybe the culprit is really Powers's script, which is, shall we say, a bit "message-forward," creating a sense of alienation for viewers who might be hoping for less stylization. Of course, One Night's talented cast helps invest this concept-driven piece with more than enough humanity to allow viewers to forgive and forget some of the film's creaks and dips into didacticism.

Kingsley Ben-Adir has the unenviable task of portraying Malcolm X, considering Denzel Washington's dramatic version of the man is probably burned even more deeply into viewers' minds than actual documentary footage of him. Nonetheless, Ben-Adir crafts a full-blooded performance different from Denzel's that also feels wholly like the man we remember. In the film, Malcolm is on the verge of leaving the Nation of Islam over misgivings he has about the Nation's leader, Elijah Muhammad. He is also working to convert his pal Cassius Clay to Islam, with the secondary hope that Cassius will join him when he leaves to start his own group.

Eli Goree plays the soon-to-be Ali. The actor effectively nails down the boxer's physical swagger and vocal cadence, but truly shines in a memorable silent moment in the film. Before his life-changing fight, Ali stops by Malcolm's motel room to pray. Malcolm leads Ali in prayer, even correcting the young boxer's awkward hand positioning. In this beautifully realized moment, we see Malcolm's religious devotion and we see Ali's unsteadiness with these new rituals. More than that, we see a glimmer of uncertainty come over Ali that Malcolm does not see. The film will tease this out in long bouts of dialogue to come, but this succinct visual so much more about their relationship as friends, about the weight of this impending decision on them both, and about the "little" secrets each is keeping from the other.

Leslie Odom Jr. plays Sam Cooke, who is set up as a kind of antagonist to Malcolm X. A singer whose smooth performance style was rooted in gospel but crossed over to the white pop audience, Cooke is positioned in the film as someone who has found a way to make money but at a cost to his soul. The script's characterization of Cooke is a bit biopic-tidy, but Odom makes the tussle between ambition and justice within Cooke make emotional sense. He can hold his own as Malcolm criticizes his fluffy, sentimental lyrics, countering with a sassy tale about brokering a lucrative deal for his protégé, Bobby Womack. Odom's singing, as expected, is gorgeous and magically avoids the uncanny not-quite-correct feeling sometimes present in the recreated performances from musical period pieces.

Aldis Hodge plays NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown as a quiet skeptic. One Night in Miami... places Jim in a transitional place, where he has to decide whether he wants to leave football to focus on acting in films. Unlike the other two, Brown's decision is not guided by pressure from Malcolm -- at least directly. In fact, the character gets a scene where he criticizes Malcolm for his militancy.

Regina King has clear affection for her actors, including the supporting players, like Joaquina Kalukango and Nicolette Robinson, who play Malcolm and Sam Cooke's wives respectively. One Night in Miami... is loaded full of philosophical banter with historical resonance, but its greatest strength is as a performer's showcase. Much like the men they portray, one hopes that One Night in Miami... is just a bellwether of even greater things to come for this cast.

The Blu-ray
One Night in Miami... is packaged with a booklet featuring an essay by Gene Seymour.

The Video:
As one would hope for a brand-new production, the AVC-encoded 1080p 2.39:1 presentation is reference quality. Though the film is constrained mostly to one location, there is plenty of visual variety and a warm, rich color palette to please the eyeballs. No noticeable digital encode issues.

The Audio:
The audio presentation is similarly excellent. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix is slick, well-balanced, clean, and clear. An English descriptive audio track is offered, as well as English SDH.

Special Features:

  • An Essential Collaboration: Regina King and Kemp Powers (HD, 29:29) - Critic Gil Robertson moderates a conversation with the director and writer. They discuss the development of the project from journalistic research by Powers for a book to reformulation as a play and eventually mutation into a film.

  • Becoming a Director (HD, 29:46) - Regina King talks to Eve's Bayou director Kasi Lemmons about the transition from film acting to film directing. They talk about the directors they worked with as actors who provided them the information, the approaches, and puzzle pieces that helped form their directorial approaches.

  • "The Director's Cut" podcast episode (HD, 41:52) - Regina King's If Beale Street Could Talk director Barry Jenkins talks to her about directing her first feature over Zoom.

  • Building Characters (HD, 23:57) - An EPK-style talking heads discussion, featuring director Regina King and the four main actors separately discussing the men portrayed in the film.

  • Sound Design in One Night in Miami... (HD, 24:11) - Some of the sound crew, Andy Hay and Paul Ledford, plus music producer Nick Baxter, discuss the process of building the soundtrack.

  • Making One Night in Miami... (HD, 31:08) - Another EPK-style program, featuring writer Kemp Powers, director Regina King, and much of the crew.

  • Trailer

Final Thoughts:
One Night in Miami... is both a promising first feature for actor-turned-director Regina King and an outstanding showcase for her relatively young cast. We hope for more great work to come. Recommended.

Justin Remer is a frequent wearer of beards. His new album of experimental ambient music, Joyce, is available on Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple, and wherever else fine music is enjoyed. He directed a folk-rock documentary called Making Lovers & Dollars, which is now streaming. He also can found be found online reading short stories and rambling about pop music.

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