Pulling off a directorial debut is something I imagine is far from easy for most people.
You need a cast and crew that not only trusts you, but is also talented in their line of work. True, actors who turn directors more than likely pick up some tricks from others they have worked for in the past, though the great teacher known as experience is something yet to be obtained. Perhaps most important, the story they want to tell has to be not only possible to film, but personal to them.
There are many actors in history who have had fine directorial debuts, more than a handful in recent years: Bradley Cooper’s retelling of A Star is Born (2018), Greta Gerwig’s charming Lady Bird (2017), Denzel Washington’s take on the stage play Fences (2016), and Jordan Peele’s breakout horror favorite Get Out (2017).
It seems the list of actors turning to directing grows by the day, becoming almost tiresome. Even so, one should be able to now add Oscar winner Regina King to the list with her debut, One Night in Miami, which is based off the stage play of the same name by Kemp Powers (who wrote the film’s screenplay, not to mention co-directed Disney/Pixar’s latest hit, Soul.) The titular night is in early 1964, where we meet four of the more iconic and influential African American men of the 20th century (or any for that matter). The fictionalized events occur after Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) defeats Sonny Liston to become the boxing champion of the world. A minor celebration is to be held led by Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), as both are also joined by Football titan Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and legendary soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.). The latter two are hoping for a real party, not the one planned by Malcom (the only ice cream flavor present is vanilla.)
The main celebration is not Clay’s win so much as it is to be his conversion to the Nation of Islam, which the young Clay (who is not far away from renaming himself Muhammad Ali) is having second thoughts on. This leads to each historical figure questioning their place in the movement for Civil Rights.
Even those with little knowledge of these four will know enough to enjoy the film (of the four, Brown is the only one still alive: Cooke would be dead in less than a year of the film’s events, Malcolm murdered a year later, and Ali had passed back in 2016). Yet those thoughts are thrown toward the back of our mind, as we see historical figures with their own uncertainties and fears (even if Clay is as cocky as anyone could me). While Brown is contemplating leaving the NFL to go to Hollywood and Clay is at the start of his famed boxing career, we look in sadness knowing that Malcolm and Cooke (who spar the most in the film) are realizing they may be near the end of their ropes.
Going into the film, I could not remember seeing any of the four actors in recent movies aside from Odom Jr. (who, of course, was Hamilton’s Aaron Burr). Each are in peak form, which each sharpening the other like knives in their screen time, even if some are more present than others (Ben-Adir’s Malcolm probably has the most screen time). At this point (at least for me), it is not enough for an actor or actress to just imitate the person. They need to make them human, which is probably more difficult with Adir’s Malcolm and Goree’s Clay. Clay/Ali was one of the most larger than life characters the world ever knew, and Malcolm X has been portrayed on screen more than once before (most famously by Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s 1992 Malcolm X). Yet impressing enough, they (as well as Odom Jr. and Hodge) make it work to nearly full effect.
The start of the film indeed gives us enough background (even if it does seem to start off a bit slow) into each of the characters’ lives at that moment in time. Clay’s exuberance in the spotlight, Malcolm’s attempt to balance his leadership duties as well as be a husband and father, and Cooke’s clear personality of being a ladies man despite being loving toward his wife Barbara.
However, it is the scene with Jim Brown that sets the tone of the film (thanks largely to King). He is invited to have a drink with Mr. Carlton (Beau Bridges, older brother of Jeff). There relationship seems to be like that of old friends, until the end when Bridges’ character reveals his true self, making us look at him in a totally different way in just the blink of an eye. It is near chilling.
Parents, the film is indeed rated R for a reason. While there is some mild violence and talk of sexual material (nothing is shown), the language itself is pretty strong. I would say High School and above.
The arguments the characters have revolve mainly around what each person is doing with their lives and talents. Malcolm argues more can be done (especially by Cooke) to make the idea of Civil Rights known. It is not enough to just have a bunch of Football records, a lot of boxing wins, or Top Billboard placements. If it does not do anything for the common good of mankind, what is the point?
By the end, we think about if what we are doing in our lives will result in the change that is gonna come.
One Night in Miami is now streaming on Amazon Prime.