Regina King flexes great ambition by contextualizing four legends in directorial debut

By Steve Pulaski

One would never mistake actress Regina King as someone with a lack of ambition, but her sights are clearly in another stratosphere with making her directorial debut about not one or two but four larger-than-life historical figures in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. Adapted from Kemp Powers’ play of the same name, first performed in 2013, King’s One Night in Miami illustrates what was possibly said and discussed in February 1964. On that evening, four titans of their respective careers gathered to watch Cassius Clay defeat Sonny Liston en route to becoming known as “the Champ” and one of, if not the, greatest fighters in the world.

The inherent challenge in incorporating four legends — Clay (Eli Goree, Riverdale), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir, Noelle), NFL running back Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge, The Invisible Man), and soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr., Hamilton) — into one movie is in peeling back the mythology of these men and revealing their humanity. King and Powers (who serves as screenwriter) succeed commendably in illustrating them as both men and metaphors: powerful figures of their time and beyond who, flaws and all, had discrepancies about how they wanted to achieve the same goal, no matter how far out of reach it seemed — and in some ways still seems today.

The film opens with each men at a relative low-point in their careers in 1963: Clay’s arrogance gets the best of him in a fight with Henry Cooper, Cooke bombs a musical performance at the Copacabana, Brown is welcomed to his hometown of St. Simons, Georgia, only to be referred to derogatorily by a so-called friend/fan, and Malcolm X confides in his wife the possibility of leaving the Nation of Islam.

Cut to 1964 and the men find themselves in a motel-room on the night of February 25, 1964, following Clay’s victory. Rather than popping bottles and basking in the glory, Malcolm has other plans: an evening of conversation and reflection. Malcolm has big plans to fight the white power structure that has long oppressed African-Americans, and with Clay planning on converting to Islam, he sees a fellow brother using his platform to educate. The duality at hand comes in Brown and Cooke’s mindsets. As entertainers in pop culture, they take great pride in finding ways to thrive in the current system and furnish a life for themselves with generational wealth. “People talk about wanting a piece of the pie,” Cooke says in a fiery confrontation with Malcolm. “I want the whole goddamn recipe.”

This obviously unnerves Malcolm. Despite the respect he has for Brown and Cooke, he can’t help but see them as pawns in an industry dominated by whites looking to exploit the body and voice of the black man, respectively. Brown answers to crusty owners of a multi-million dollar corporation, as does Cooke, despite his insistence of providing avenues of wealth for black singers, namely in the vein of royalty checks for R&B/soul samples used in mainstream pop songs. Whom you resonate with is a matter of your belief system. Both parties (Clay and Malcolm’s philosophy vs. Brown and Cooke’s) make compelling points, and King and Powers are careful about leading us down a predetermined path.

Everyone brings something to their iconic characters. Indisputably, Ben-Adir has the loftiest challenge of filling the inescapable shoes that Denzel Washington made for Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s masterful biopic. He succeeds in not trying to emulate that performance, but make this one his own through precise delivery and mannerisms. He’s watchable whenever he gives a monologue. Moreover, Goree subtly nails Ali’s difficult accent without overplaying it, Hodge is stern and cocksure as Brown (namely in scenes when he details his move to becoming an actor), and Odom sings and swings as the flamboyant Cooke. If anything, Powers posits Cooke as the odd-man-out insofar that his name might not immediately summon images near the caliber of the other three, but his personality is slowly but surely revealed overtime. Odom is up to the challenge, especially in moments when he raises his voice and must come to his own defense.

The end result is engaging drama, although it takes some time getting there. The expository first act feels like a required history lesson to contextualize these individuals. It doesn’t draw us in emotionally, however, and makes you ponder the potential power the screenplay would’ve harbored had all-or-most of it been set in that tight motel-room. Yet King and Powers gift us a rousing second act complete with tense and interpersonal dialog, capped off by riveting performances — the ultimate ingredient in making this drama successful.

Finally, it’s worth noting how comfortable these characters appear with one another; able to be themselves free from the ever-prying eyes of media and the public. The masks are off and these men are permitted to be who they are: unapologetically black and opinionated, fearing not of the potential judgment bestowed upon them if they were expressing these ideas in front of a microphone. Regina King has long lived in the background of many films, most recently If Beale Street Could Talk, the adaptation of the delightful James Brown novel that won her an Oscar. Here, she might be unseen, but her power is felt, and this is quite possibly the start of a second act of her career that could very well be bigger than her first.

NOTE: One Night in Miami is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

Steve’s Grade: B+