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Review: One Night in Miami (2020)

Oh, what a night!

During the two years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve reviewed dozens of movies whose origins are solely based in fiction. I’ve also reviewed just as many movies that are based on true events. I’ve even reviewed a handful of movies that are based on stories first made famous on the stage. In One Night in Miami (2020), Regina King’s directorial debut, all three of those spheres of storytelling collide to create one of this awards season’s most thought-provoking dramas. I mean, come on. Were we really expecting anything less than excellence from Regina King? Everything she does is *chef’s kiss.

Credit: / Amazon Studios

Based on the play of the same name, One Night in Miami tells the story of a fictionalized meeting between Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke. Meeting at the Hampton House hotel in February 1964, the four legendary figures celebrate Ali’s surprise title win over Sonny Lister while also discussing deeper themes such as power, success, religion, and racial equality.

I knew basically nothing about this movie before watching. I didn’t even know that it was based on a play until I was finished the movie. The whole time I was watching it though I kept going, “you know, someone should really make this into a stage show, it would be terrific.” Even without much knowledge of the movie, the premise alone left me intrigued. What an interesting idea to blend fact and fiction to create a piece of work that although set in the 1960s, is a powerhouse of a story that’s just as timely now as it was back then. From the incredible writing to the standout performances, there’s undoubtedly a lot to like about One Night in Miami. However, I’d say that first you have to endure some truly glacial pacing before you can really get to enjoy the movie. The first half hour feels like it drags on for just a little too long, during which nothing substantial happens. In fact, it feels like a greatest hits sizzle reel of the four protagonists, rehashing their professional achievements so that audiences know who they are. Such forced exposition feels a little jumbled, like the movie is spinning its wheels before getting to the main story. But once the movie finally catches up with its premise, it’s a train that can’t be stopped.

Before the four main characters come together, One Night in Miami feels a little incohesive. Like you’re watching four movies instead of one. In fact, there was a brief moment where I thought that maybe this would have been more successful if it had been four separate movies rather than one. That’s the problem you face when you’re working with  four legendary characters. You have to make sure you give each of them an appropriate amount of screen time, an almost Herculean task. But once King gets X, Ali, Cooke, and Brown in the same room, she pulls it off beautifully.

Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Leslie Odom Jr. and Aldis Hodge play X, Ali, Cooke, and Brown respectively, delivering sensational performances that are each award-worthy to say the least. Except for Hodge (who is quickly becoming one of my favourite actors by the way), I had never seen this cast in anything else. I was blown away by each one! The principal actors have a wonderful chemistry, like they’ve been performing One Night in Miami on stage together for months, knowing exactly how to play off each other to yield the most electric performances. The tension, admiration, and difference in ideals that each man holds and feels towards each other cuts like a knife. Any scene between Odom Jr. and Ben-Adir is especially exciting to watch, and I sincerely hope the latter gets an Oscar nomination for his gripping and layered portrayal.

As with most movies based on stage shows, the writing in One Night in Miami is what makes it so spectacular. A smooth transition of the stage show, Kemp Powers’ screenplay successfully explores complex themes while never feeling like it’s too difficult to follow. The writing is dynamic and makes you think but also feels extremely conversational. It’s insightful, jaw-dropping, and full of nuggets that are going to make you stop and go, “whoa, I’ve never really thought of that before.” The story itself may be a bit of a slow burn, but once the movie picks up steam, the writing is so palpable and full of energy that it will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very end. And King’s shooting of these electrically-charged scenes? Phenomenal. She knows how to mine the drama out of any scene.

One Night in Miami is a stunning debut from Regina King. For obvious reasons it really made me want to rewatch Malcolm X (1992). And see Ali (2001) for the first time. Basically it made me want to a watch a number of exceptional biopics. Already nominated for a handful of Golden Globe Awards, One Night in Miami is sure to be a frontrunner when it comes to this year’s Oscar race. Go ahead and check it out!

Have you seen One Night in Miami?

Let me know in the comments or on social media!

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