Maybe it says more about the films that I personally seek out, but it feels like the past twelve months has been a big period for high profile stage to screen adaptations. Netflix brought us both The Boys In The Band and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 2020, and now Amazon Studios are jumping into the mix with One Night In Miami…, a film that has been on the lips of many awards season specialists for months and months, and a film that marks the feature directorial debut of Oscar winning actress Regina King.
Adapted from the 2013 play of the same name by Kemp Powers, One Night In Miami… tells the story of a fictionalised meeting between four black men in Florida in 1964, four black men who just happen to be some of the most famous in the world. After defeating Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion of the world, a young Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) travels with singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) to celebrate in the motel room of mutual friend and activist Malcom X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). What unfolds over the next 90 or so minutes is a searing, dialogue filled drama that explores various elements of both the 1960s African American experience and the fight for civil rights that has become synonymous with the period.
There is no other way for me to begin this review other than saying that I wholeheartedly loved One Night In Miami…. Bizarrely, many of the gripes that I had with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom I feel the complete opposite about here, and I’m not entirely sure why. Both films stay very much within their theatrical, stage confines, focusing on small, intimate spaces and showcasing extended dialogue and monologue, but whilst I wanted Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to break free and expand, One Night In Miami… seems to thrive in its smaller scale.
In many ways, the film almost bears a strange resemblance to something like The Breakfast Club. John Hughes presented a brain, a beauty, a jock, a rebel and a recluse; Regina King presents a boxer, a baller, an artist and an activist. What bound The Breakfast Club’s teens together were the various pains and struggles of adolescence, and what binds these men together are the various pains and struggles racial prejudice. The discussion of such huge themes within the understated settings of motel rooms and roofs creates a juxtaposition that I found to be irresistible, enhanced hugely by the brilliant writing. It takes a certain something to craft words for real life figures like Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X who were so definingly eloquent, and Kemp Powers definitely has that something.
One all important element of the film’s success is the fact that the performances are exceptional across the board. There is absolutely nothing to pick between Eli Goree, Leslie Odom Jr. and Aldis Hodge as (the then) Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown respectively. Each character enjoys pretty much equal screen time, and the actors take their time and use is amazingly, both in moments alone and in the moments together when their chemistry and connections are off the charts.
Rising slightly above his cast mates to steal the MVP crown, for me, however, is Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X. The prospect of playing such an important and complex real life character has to be a daunting one, but Ben-Adir gives what I feel could be a defining performance. Though the story is very much a ‘four-hander’ between the group of characters, there is something in the gravitas and weight of Malcolm’s contributions that pulls focus towards him at every given moment. Obviously the real life fate of the character adds a foreboding melancholy to the narrative, and Ben-Adir plays with all of this expertly to produce something truly special. I know it seems as though Best Actor has already been decided in the favour of Chadwick Boseman this year, but Kingsley Ben-Adir really might have something to say about that.
Overall, One Night In Miami… is a masterful example of a stage to screen adaptation that, rather than be hampered by it, truly excels in its native small scale approach. The charisma of the story’s four leading actors (and characters) does more than enough to make up for any lack of true cinematic dynamism in my opinion. I was in tears by the time the credits rolled, and to be moved to that degree isn’t something that happens often. Possibly my favourite of awards season so far.