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Reviews

Review: One Night in Miami [London Film Festival]

October 11, 2020
One Night In Miami

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.

Leslie Odom Jr. stars in ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI Photo: Patti Perret/Amazon Studios

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. 

Kingsley Ben-Adir stars in ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI Photo: Patti Perret/Amazon Studios

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.

Regina King at the 91st Academy Awards Photo: ABC

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 – First Look Clip (Amazon Studios)

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.

Also Read: Why Watchmen Is One Of The Best TV Shows In Recent Times

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Reviews

Review: Kajillionaire [London Film Festival]

October 7, 2020

One of the most quoted lines in all of literature is from the beginning of Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This has, for hundreds of years, surmised our feelings towards our families. We view others with envy, the seemingly perfect families, nuclear and close, while we resent our own uniquely unhappy one. For Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), the oddball protagonist of Miranda July’s Kajillionaire, that unhappiness is incredibly unique. 

Old Dolio, named after a man who won the lottery in the hopes she might end up in his will, is from a family of scammers; small-time criminals who are happy to skate by, or so they say. Her father, Robert (Richard Jenkins), prefers this half-life, one in which the rent is always due, and turning fast tricks is both an adrenaline rush and a necessity. “Most people want to be kajillionaires,” he says, but it doesn’t interest him. While her mother, Theresa (Debra Winger) is equally baked into this life on the fringes but, maybe more so than her father, shows little affection for Old Dolio. 

Kajillionaire
Credit: Focus Features.

It’s because of this life that Old Dolio has become more of a worker than a daughter. She works the scams as she’s asked to; stealing from the post office, conning a wealthy married couple, and then attempting to do the same to their daughter. All to earn a little extra cash, never too much, $20 here, $50 there. This family isn’t interested in robbing banks, in splitting millions of dollars three ways, but rather playing against the system as a means to survive. 

That is until Melanie (Gina Rodriquez) shows up, a chatty and beautiful woman who exposes the family’s dysfunctionality, while they’re running a job. Melanie, intrigued by the strangeness of Robert and Theresa is pulled into the thrill and ease of these jobs and begins suggesting cons of her own. The first is to scam the old desperate customers she serves at work, to convince them to give her that antiques and to sell them on at a profit; the sad and lonely praying on the sad and desperate. Then, as the money does start rolling in that value system, about living on very little, is tested.

It’s from here that each new step exposes, to Old Dolio, that her perception of family is misguided. She watches her mother warm to Melanie, watches her become crucial in the family’s newest scams, and sees what her life could be like if her parents acted as if they loved her. In one scene, she even watches as her parents play happy families as part of a con, and she sees that they do know how to be kind, they just choose not to be. 

This yearning, for connection and to be seen, is Miranda July’s favourite territory. In her short stories, people, often lost young women, explore their tangible and fragile connections with others, and her novel sees a lonely woman find love in the strangest of places. Her previous films, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) and The Future (2011), showed a kooky side, one that saw talking cats narrate tales of existential crisis and awkward salespeople creating intimate connections with customers. She is an artist who likes to explore the uncomfortable, the strange, and the confusing and Kajillionaire is an excellent addition to July’s Theatre of the Lonely. 

Kajillionaire
Credit: Focus Features

Old Dolio is lonely. She has never been called affectionate nicknames, never been hugged, or caressed yet she is “addicted” to the neglect of her parents. She doesn’t know what an alternative life would look like until Melanie tries to show her. This queer connection at the centre of this small world is Old Dolio’s driving force to look for something different, to seek the love she deserves. 

In July’s deft and absurd hands, Kajillionaire is enrapturing, strange, and overwhelmingly joyful to watch. It feels distinctly of its own creation and each left-field acting choice, visual, or plot point only furthers to strengthen the overall whacky experience. It is, at times, heart-breaking then romantic, then silly, then serious, then funny, and manages to give each feeling, each beat, just as much credibility. As you watch pink suds droop down from cracks in the ceiling of the disused office where the family lives or the way they crouch behind low walls to avoid the landlord, if you examine the strange outfits Old Dolio dons, or watch her try to army crawl along the floor as a form of apology, you can’t help but feel that Melanie sums it up best; “Most happiness comes from dumb things.”

Kahjillionaire (Official Trailer)

Kajillionaire is available to rent on BFI Player as part of the London Film Festival from today. 

It is released in cinemas nationwide from Friday 9th October 

Also Read: How Film Changed Me: On Sofia Coppola

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