REVIEW: ‘One Night in Miami’ pulls no punches

Stephen Lambros, Staff Writer

Since their first feature film releases in the mid-2010s, Amazon Studios has quietly amassed a solid catalog of artful, well-crafted independent movies; notable titles include “The Lost City of Z,” “Honey Boy,” and “The Vast of Night.” But while the Casey Affleck drama “Manchester by the Sea” put Amazon on the map of Academy Awards voters, the streamerfor whatever reasonhasn’t been able to replicate its Oscar success, only managing to get nominations for the odd foreign film since then. However, the absence of major theatrical releases in 2020 proposes a turnaround for Amazon’s luck, as the streamer finds itself with a larger share of potential Oscar candidates than before. Perhaps the one film most capable of striking the Academy’s fancy is none other than “One Night in Miami,” a 60s-set drama that not only provides the biographical portrayals the Academy typically craves, but also speaks to issues of race and of speaking up for what’s right that are vital to the current moment. Critics have already embraced the filmit was an official selection for last year’s Venice Film Festivalbut it’s time for audiences to embrace the film as well.

“One Night in Miami…” thoughtfully ends with a performance by Sam Cooke, portrayed by Leslie Odom Jr.
Photo by Patti Perret – TNS

“One Night in Miami” imagines a night in the 1960s where Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), singer/songwriter Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.), NFL player Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and the yet-to-be-renamed Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) meet together in a motel room after Clay’s championship title victory against Sonny Liston. Inside the motel room, their conversation takes a turn toward discussing the different ways they can open doors and thwart injustice for Black demographics in America. As a result of the conversation, the brotherhood and friendship of the four men is strengthened, and their understanding of their own roles in society is renewed.

Regina King, having herself won an Oscar for her supporting turn in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” is one of the most respectful American actors working today in film and television, and “One Night in Miami” marks her first time in the director’s chair. And for her directorial debut, “One Night in Miami” provides a truly impressive display of King’s directorial skills. She paints a portrait that never once shies away from the truths and experiences of Black Americans, keeping the camera close and really peering to find the vulnerabilities of seemingly impervious figures, such as Malcolm X and Cassius Clay. And of course, critics often mention how hard it can be to keep viewers engaged when most of the film’s runtime takes place in a single location, such as a motel room, and it’s safe to say that Regina King manages to absorb the viewer in the dynamics between the four main characters despite setting most of the story in one location.

Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) arrives at a place of peace by the end of “One Night in Miami.”
Photo by Patti Perret/Amazon Studios – TNS

Speaking of the four main characters, each of the actors do a terrific job portraying their real-life figures. Kingsley Ben-Adir, an up-and-coming English actor, shines as Malcolm X, revealing a wider array of facets to him than most people recognize. Then Leslie Odom Jr. puts his singing abilities to good as Sam Cooke, Aldis Hodge nails the assuredness of Jim Brown and Eli Goree brings the lovable cockiness of Cassius Clay to life. Casting could not have picked a better ensemble for these historical figures—it’s as if each actor was made for their specific role.

“One Night in Miami” seems like an unassuming, contained drama, but it’s much more significant than meets the eye. As a late release of the year 2020, it encapsulates the current moment brilliantly, reminding us that America is haunted by the same things that haunted it in the 60s, and that it’s a necessity for people to speak out against injustice. Many films surrounding Blackness were released in 2020, such as “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Da 5 Bloods,” but “One Night in Miami” is right up there with the others and certainly worth searching for on Amazon to give it a try.