#TIFF20 — Regina King Comes Out the Gate Strong in “One Night in Miami” Directorial Debut

Given the current climate in America (the world for that matter), dramas that tackle racial issues just kind of hit different right now. And it’s crazy that a drama set in the 1960s can still speak volumes to the current movement and struggle within the Black community in particular. The premise of “One Night in Miami” is that four iconic figures of Black culture — Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) come together after Clay becomes the new Heavyweight Champion of the World for a night that changes the trajectory of their lives and the Movement.

On the surface, this doesn’t sound like it would be much of a film…four icons in a room talking about the state of the world and state of their race…sounds much more like documentary fare. But boy, does this film deliver so much more than that. The film starts with a little back story of each of the four men which kind of sets the foundation for their perspective and mentality going into this meeting that changes the course of all of their lives. We seem to be going along just swimmingly when we, the viewers, are jerked back into the brutal reality when Brown is having an innocuous conversation with Mr. Carlton (a “friendly” white Georgia man) when out of no-where the N-word is dropped so casually that it is like a gut punch to both Brown and the viewer. It’s a “they can root for you…cheer for your…but you’re not welcomed in their house” type attitude that was so prevalent back then (and still today to some extent).

In her directorial debut, the incomparable Regina King assembles a stellar cast and pulls out such strong performances from all involved that there is much Oscar-buzz circling this film already. It’s not filled with action or melodrama, but it is character-driven and the performances alone keep you tuned in. When Goree (“Race” “Riverdale”) comes on screen and opens his mouth you feel like you are really watching the legendary Ali and he really lives in that role. Aldis Hodge (“Leverage” “Hidden Figures”) always has an understated dignity and strength to his performances and that so aligns with his portrayal of Brown.  Ben-Adir’s (“High Fidelity” “Peaky Blinders”) conflicted Malcolm X is subtle and spot on. And then there’s Leslie Odom Jr.’s Sam Cooke, who is hands down the spark of this film. Odom Jr.’s performance is so strong and visceral that the complexities of this man come through vividly on the screen.

Not only is the acting spot-on, the set design and costume design are top notch and really transport you back to the 1960s. The film also does a great job of visually recreating some of the more standout moments of their lives (i.e. Ali’s underwater photoshoot). You feel like you are pulling the curtain back on a tiny piece of history (fictional history in this case) to see the inner workings of this group of friends. Oh to be “young, black, famous and unapologetic.” You see what makes them each tick…you see their vulnerabilities. There is so much sincerity in the writing and the performances that makes this film so believable. And there’s even the a little humor sprinkled throughout. But ultimately, it’s the chemistry between the four actors that really makes this film stand out.

It’s an interesting set up to see the four different perspectives on the times, not only about race relations and how to bring about change but also about the Nation of Islam and Black Muslims. And on top that, “One Night in Miami” is a WORD…it is a call-to-action. It urges those with power (and those without)…especially those within the Black community…to use their talents to help the cause and push us forward to a better world. But it also shows us that there is no one “right way” to do so. It’s a message about this (1964 and 2020) being the time to stand up and draw a line in the sand…either you’re with us or you’re against us…it’s about personal responsibility. It speaks to a moment in time — this moment — how will we respond?!