One Night in Miami
Director: Regina King
Cast: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Leslie Odom Jr, Aldis Hodge
One Night in Miami may be – just like Kemp Powers' play that it is based on -- a chamber piece unfolding on a single night, mostly in a hotel room, although director Regina King (best known for her television credits) in her feature debut for Amazon Prime steers away from monotony by taking us out now and then to give captivating facets about her four black stars. For example, we watch Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) boxing world title holder Sonny Liston out of the ring to clinch the heavy weight trophy. It is 1964. It is Miami.
It is that night of victory when four black friends – Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), musician Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr), champion football player Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and of course Cassius get together to celebrate the historic win.
While we see the four having a friendly banter – sometimes arguing, sometimes ready to get into a little fist-fight – King takes us away to Sam's concert in which his competitor plays mischief. He mucks up the microphone so that Sam would not be heard in a huge auditorium filled to its brim by a deliriously cheering crowd. Sam begins to tap his feet and clap, asking the people to follow him, while he tries to croon at the top of his voice.
Back inside the hotel room, Malcolm warns Sam that he would last only as long as the white people want him. Sam would always have to play second fiddle. So, you must come on your own, write your own songs, says Malcolm, a Muslim, who has convinced Cassius to switch his religion. On the same night, he announces to the journalists gathered outside the hotel that he would henceforth be called Cassius X. It is only later he changes his name to Muhammad Ali.
Also intricately woven into the narrative is the huge prejudice that whites in America have against blacks. We see this in a very subtle but unmistakable manner when Jim goes visiting an elderly family friend. His daughter offers him lemonade, and the man is all praise for the young man's talents on the field. He talks about how their two families have had a long relationship. But when the girl asks her father to help move a furniture inside the house, Jim offers a hand. No, says the man, we do not let blacks inside! The father uses a derogatory term, crushing the young man's self-respect. A troubling instance, of double standards.
Those were days when the Civil Rights Movement was gaining ground in the US, and there was a lot of opposition to giving blacks equal rights – a picture which is not very different today with African-Americans still being made to feel inferior, still at the receiving end of violence and injustice.
King's work is superbly gripping, much like some of the chamber pieces that our own Satyajit Ray made when he was not in the best of health. There is not a moment when the narrative sags, not a moment when your attention is allowed to waver as the four friends, essayed by fine actors, chat and argue and come out with their deepest of fears. Even while Malcom, a Muslim himself, is getting set to induct Cassius into the fold, the older man is unhappy with the leadership of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm is thinking of quitting this organisation and opening one himself. Regina paints Malcom's dilemma with feeling, and she also explores how each of the friends is fighting his own battle with racism. Narrated with a strong sense of purpose, One Night in Miami is certainly one of the good movies I have seen in recent months.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is a movie critic and author of an autobiography of Adoor Gopalakrishnan)