VENICE—There is a moment early on in Regina King’s One Night in Miami when it becomes painfully clear that this film is not going to sugarcoat the blatant reality of systemic racism. Aldis Hodge, who plays the former NFL football star turned actor Jim Brown, is sitting on the front porch of a white neighbor’s house in his hometown of St. Simons, Georgia, in 1964. The neighbor is Mr. Carlton, played by Beau Bridges, who offers him a lemonade and pours praise over Brown, telling him how proud he is to be from the same town as such an impressive football hero. Carlton’s granddaughter reminds her grandfather that he needs to move some furniture but when Brown offers to help, Carlton flat-out tells him—using the N-word—that they do not allow Black people inside the house.
One Night in Miami recreates an evening in February of 1964 when real-life friends Jim Brown, a pre-Muhammad Ali Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and Malcolm X (played by Kingsley Ben-Adir) gathered to celebrate Clay’s win over Sonny Liston, which made him the youngest heavyweight champion of the world.
The real-life conversation of that night is not known, but writer Kemp Powers—adapting his play of the same name for the screen—creates a believable dialogue that brings out the vulnerable sides of four of the most influential Black men of their time. In a post-screening Zoom press conference, Powers said the whole script was created around a single paragraph in a book about Muhammad Ali that mentioned the four meeting in a hotel room that night in Miami.
The film flicks at each character’s daytime personality—Malcolm X’s speeches, Cassius Clay’s legendary ego, Sam Cooke’s crooning, and Jim Brown’s transition from the football field to acting, but it is Powers’ exploration of the softer side of these men that resonates the most.
The men talk deeply and painfully about their own struggles with racism, but not in the context of police brutality or racial profiling. These are all successful Black men at the pinnacle of their careers who, it is revealed, have had to sacrifice a part of themselves to white America in order to attain their status. Malcolm X holds each man’s foot to the fire to lay bare what those compromises are, which so few white people—including myself—really ever get such a raw, inside look at.
The conversations are candid and the men convincingly vulnerable. Powers pits Malcolm X against Cooke for “selling out” to white people, giving Cooke the opportunity to explain it from his perspective—in the end, both men see eye to eye. The night lingers on and wafts into a very deep conversation between Brown and Malcolm X about colorism, with Brown coaxing tears out of Malcolm X for his insecurity about “not being Black enough.” (Just a few days later, Malcolm X would be assassinated, and his mounting paranoia about his fate is palpable).
One Night in Miami is King’s feature directorial debut, and she is the only Black female director to have a major film at the scaled-down 77th Venice Film Festival, which she said in the presser was a “make or break moment” for all female directors.
The post-screening conversation—in which King, all four actors, and the writer were present—seemed to continue off-screen, with the four men bonding as if they were still on set. Hodge, who played Brown, said that he felt the film captured what is happening in today’s America even though it was set in the 1960s. “I think for me personally, part of coming to this particular project as a Black man is that these are the conversations I have in my daily life,” he said. “The beautiful thing about our art is that we do have an opportunity to influence real progress and affect real change… these are the moments we have to manage the conversations right now—for me myself, this film would help people understand how to talk to us, how to look at us, and for our own community [to] really come together. There are a lot of conversations being had right now, but there is also a lot of disconnect. A piece of art like this can be part of this connection.”
Ben-Adir, who played Malcolm X, described to the press some of what it has meant for him to be a light-skinned Black man, and the weight of that. He also said playing such a legend was an opportunity of a lifetime but also a burden, since he was playing a side of Malcolm X few ever saw. “We always see these men at work, all of the videos they are always in the limelight, they are always responding to something,” he said. “You never see Malcolm X when he wasn’t in a press situation or responding to the most incredibly atrocious experience of racism.”
When King started filming One Night in Miami last November, no one could have imagined what was around the corner, first with the COVID-19 pandemic and then nationwide protests for racial justice following the police’s killing of George Floyd. King said that they could not have chosen a better moment for its release. “The story for Black Americans, those were the conversations that were happening 60 years ago, and these are the conversations happening now,” she said. “When we started filming it, little did we know we’d be in this powder-keg moment we are now. It’s one of those things that feels like it was meant to be… as if fate always had this planned out this way.”
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