CIFF 2020: One Night in Miami

Amazon Studios

The one good thing the COVID-19 pandemic has brought, as far as I can tell, is that just anyone can take part in the big film festivals this year. I’ve watched a few of the big-name movies, sure to be in the conversation during awards season, early, and without leaving my home. In normal years, I’m waiting around for these films to get through their limited-release openings in New York and Los Angeles, before they begin to slowly trickle into theaters in the rest of the country, sometimes after the Academy Awards ceremony itself. My screening of Regina King’s feature directorial debut One Night in Miami… (I’m going to type the title without the ellipsis from now on) was part of the Chicago International Film Festival, which continued to the last weekend in October.

One Night in Miami follows a fictional account of a meeting that occurred in a Miami hotel room between political leader Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay, later to be renamed Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), at the time up-and-coming musician Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and famed football player Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). In this hotel room, they talk about what it means to be a successful African-American man in America and the many places we still need to go as a society.

One Night in Miami is written by Kemp Powers, which he adapted from his 90-minute one-act play of the same name. It very much feels like a stage adaptation, but it also does a lot of the stage-to-film adaptation things that bug me. First, there is a staggering amount of exposition in the film’s first half hour, which I’ll forgive in this case, because it’s unlikely many younger viewers will be very familiar with the four figures we’ll be following for the next two hours. This effectively tells us where we are as a society (a racial climate that, of course, has plenty of parallels with life in 2020) but also tells us why these people matter in the larger cultural lexicon. But the problem is, this section of the film feels like exposition. It feels like a thing we just have to get through to get to the meat of this story.

The film also suffers from some pretty substantial pacing issues and some script problems. There are certain scenes where characters deliver expository monologues that explain things to the audience that were established in earlier scenes, and these scenes feel like they exist just to explain things to the audience and walk you through every emotional beat, and it’s just strange.

It also does the stage-to-screen adaptation thing where we break away a lot from the central location, presumably in an effort to keep the film from feeling too stagey. A lot of critics complain about a stage-to-screen adaptation when it feels like it was made for the wrong medium, and the same critics consider it a negative when a movie feels like canned theatre. Personally, I will never dock a stage-to-screen adaptation points for feeling too stagey. As a person who loves live theatre perhaps even more than going to the movies, I absolutely love the tension that comes from watching a live performance, and knowing there’s only one room, and the conversation is going to escalate and become more volatile until we reach a boiling point of tension and drama. We don’t have that here, because characters will walk outside when the conversation gets too heated, and sometimes they’ll go and hang out on the roof, and sometimes one will go out to a pay phone to call a loved one, and it breaks the tension and the drama, and the impact is gone.

However, as an actor’s showcase, One Night in Miami earns all of the film festival praise it’s receiving. Each central performance is nothing short of remarkable. These four actors take larger-than-life figures, each at an important point of their career, and give them the attention and nuance they deserve, and make you forget that this is script is basically just highbrow fan-fiction. It’s the kind of thing where I can’t talk about how one performance was a standout, because one isn’t really better than any of the others, and I have no idea how they’re going to figure this out in the supporting/lead conversation this awards season.

This is Regina King’s feature directorial debut. King has directed a lot of TV in the past, but One Night in Miami is meant to also be her victory lap, after a very successful few years in which she’s won an Oscar and an Emmy. While this is not even close to a perfect movie, it would be dishonest for me not to acknowledge how promising of a debut this is for King. There are quite a few creative choices do work successfully, even if not everything does, and it does carry significant dramatic weight when all is said and done. The story itself is about black masculinity, and it’s kind of great to me that so many women are working on this film behind the scenes. It’s also obviously a historical film that is meant to shed light on the racism that hasn’t really gone anywhere since 1964, and the impact structural racism has on African-American public figures.

One Night in Miami has plenty of insightful observations about the world around it, but I wouldn’t call it essential because ultimately this isn’t a true story. This is a playwright’s idea of how this conversation between four iconic Americans might have gone, and it reminds you constantly that it’s based on a play. And yet it suppresses its stage roots at every turn, and that ultimately is what kept me from truly connecting with it emotionally. Honestly, most of this film’s problems would be solved if the film stuck to the one central location. One Night in Miami is an incredibly well-acted, but ultimately uneven experience.

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