In a 2014 interview, the activist and writer Angela Y. Davis decried the emphasis on individualism in American history. “It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals,” she said, as a way to make sure that people today are able to recognise their “potential agency as part of a community of struggle.” In Regina King’s directorial debut, One Night in Miami, we spend time with four black men who might fall into the category of “heroic individuals” yet we seem them collaborate, argue, and support each other: Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Malcolm X.
In 1964, Cassius Clay (soon to become Muhammad Ali) beat Sonny Liston to become the boxing World Heavyweight Champion despite odds, 7-1, saying he would lose. The win launched Clay into the public eye in a new way and, shortly after, he announced his conversion to Islam and his new name. One Night in Miami takes place over a few hours after that history-making fight and sees Clay (played with flair by Eli Goree, Riverdale) celebrate in a hotel room with his friends revolutionary Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir, High Fidelity), NFL hero turned movie star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge, The Invisible Man), and, the King of Soul, Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr., Hamilton). As the night draws on, tensions rise, and the discussion moves to how positions of power, stages in the public eye, can be used to speak out against the rampant racism and violence of the mid-sixties.
In this sense, it is a clash between Malcolm and Cooke that takes the central focus. Malcolm, already being followed by the FBI, believes in freedom by utilising activism; speaking out, challenging the powers that be, and refusing to play by their rules. While Cooke, who has been pursuing success on the pop charts and playing segregated venues like the Copacabana, believes in winning them over with his music – not music that is politically minded, but music that is soft and gentle which might lead a white audience to realise black people really are just like them.
This is an issue that has plagued nearly every movement for rights in the past decade; how do we do it? Is it done politely, with the oppressor setting the guidelines for how the discourse can play out? Or is it in the hands of the oppressed to fight against whatever way they see fit be it through boycott, protest, or rioting? Even now, in response to the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, white people and conservatives are still trying to dictate how the oppressed can politely ask for their rights. Peaceful protest is allowed but kneeling during the national anthem is too far. Organised marching is okay but not during COVID and not if it descends into violence – even if that violence is, more often than not, instigated by the police.
King’s timely debut spends a lot of time unpacking this idea, as Malcolm and Sam become more heated the others offer advice too. Brown, sympathetic to Malcolm’s ideas, offers that Cooke is seeking “economic freedom” which is essential within capitalist structures while Clay seems to advocate for unity between the four regardless of opinion. This is part of the immense power One Night in Miami holds; it can jostle with lofty political debate, engage with political theory, and ideological differences yet it remains a downright entertaining, gripping, and riveting drama. The latter is mostly down to the cast, all of whom are incredibly exciting and captivating on-screen while embodying their famous characters. Ben-Adir oozes righteousness with hints of the radical and smatterings of kindness, Hodge offers a stoicism, graceful and straightforward (plus the way his eyes react can tell you more than 100 pages of dialogue), Goree appears enamoured with a naïve confidence and boyish attitude while maintaining maturity in his decisions, and Odom Jr.’s light-hearted exterior gives way to waves of intense internal conflict.
Of course, all of the above would not be possible with King’s deft and subtle direction that creates both a sense of claustrophobia in the small hotel room and also suggests a future far beyond it filled with possibility. King, who has won multiple Emmys for acting in shows like American Crime and Watchmen as well as an Oscar for her portrayal of Sharon Rivers in 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk, is no stranger to directing despite this being her debut feature. For TV she has directed episodes of HBO’s hit comedy Insecure, NBC’s prized weepy This is Us, and Shondaland’s twisty political drama Scandal amongst others. In One Night in Miami, she isn’t afraid of the intimacy the film (adapted from a stage play of the same name by Kemp Powers) offers, nor is she afraid of the complexity the debate at its centre offers. She only slightly resists its theatrical trappings, by adding an elongated intro and occasional flashbacks, which is a bold step but one that ultimately pays off. Yet, that shouldn’t come as a surprise from an actor who has, in the past decade, defined herself as one of the industry’s best and brightest.
In Zadie Smith’s recent essay collection, Intimations, she writes about the recent murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers by conceptualising racism as a virus that has infected America, one that arrived long before COVID-19. “I used to think one day there would be a vaccine,” she wrote. “I don’t think that anymore.” This is not defeatism, but it is something that becomes easier and easier to understand as the decades go by, and things don’t seem to change. In one scene, Malcolm passionately cries that black people are being “murdered in the streets” and that it’s not enough to “sit on the fence” anymore (Malcolm himself would be murdered less than a year after Clay’s historic win). This does not seem unlike the sentiment we see today, one that still hopes for change but has decades of stagnation to look back on. In presenting this debate, on how to dissent and when, King offers an artistic, entertaining, and thoroughly impressive comment on our current climate. How do we move forward? We will not get there individually but rather with the help of others, standing collectively, and, like the song the film finishes with, knowing that a change is gonna come.
One Night in Miami is playing at the BFI Southbank 11th & 12th October as part of the London Film Festival 2020.
It will be released nationwide by Amazon Studios in early 2021.