In the category ‘high-profile film adaptations of Black American plays released on streaming platforms this winter’, this one was far & away my favorite. Both still feel quite like the stage their stories originated on, but could be said to embrace that, a kind of purity in how they wear their theatrical hearts front and center—it’s going to be about the words and the performances, it says. After my tepid response to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, I began to wonder if, taking its cue from the theatre it’s replicating, the director might have an outsized influence on these sorts of projects. If you take as a given that the bulk of your movie is going to be a handful of characters talking in a room, then it’s all going to come down to how they’re doing that talking. The pacing, the tone, the emotional texture among the actors.
Actor Regina King’s directorial debut was the other of these straight-forward play adaptations, and the living warmth she brings to this philosophical script is an achievement completely worthy of all the acclaim she’s been earning so far this season. One Night In Miami, first performed onstage in 2013, centers on a fictionalized account of what might have been talked about on a real night in 1964 spent between football star Jim Brown, musician Sam Cooke, civil rights leader Malcolm X, and newly minted world heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay, just on the cusp of joining Malcolm in the Nation of Islam, where he would take on the name Muhammad Ali. The conversation topics that night, as imagined by writer Kemp Powers: race, politics, economics, and religion, heavy hitters to match even The Greatest.
Powers, who adapted his own stage play for King to put on screen (and wonderfully without preciousness—the first lines from his original play don’t occur until a good 40 minutes in) has said he was using these dialogues to air out silent debates he’d been having with himself about what it meant for him to be a Black artist in mostly white spaces. The result is a wide-ranging dialogue with a bracing depth of complexity and contradiction. Each new point raised is often in conflict with the one prior, and yet it TOO is a good point! This narrative turns its whole audience into Geminis for the night, basically, though feeling out every thread this way, instead of tugging on just one, seems to slightly loosen the Gordian knot by the end, without ever being so foolhardy as to imply it’s been cut.
But while One Night in Miami offers a lot of rhetoric to chew over, where King’s film version really sings (besides the moments when Leslie Odom Jr literally does), is in the interpersonal dynamics of it all. There’s four of them, when we eventually settle into the hotel room where most of the story takes place, and they talk and bond and spar together in a group and in factions within that group, but we also get scenes with just two characters alone, in every combination at some point, where these differences bloom up in how they might behave with one friend but not another, different forms of vulnerability that come out in different arrangements. It’s an idea movie that’s been intertwined with such rich character studies, such a nuanced and tender portrayal of homosocial interaction, and—and this is far from nothing—all among historical luminaries of Black culture. The movie humanizes these larger-than-life figures, without ever losing sight of the fact that it is their fame itself, and the question of what they should be doing with it as Black men in America in the 1960s, that makes up the stuff of their fiercest arguments and most open wounds.
All the compassion and thought of a writer and a director still needs a standout cast to make these conversation plays really shine though, and by jove they got it here. The only actor I knew going in was Leslie Odom Jr, whose talents absolutely translated from Broadway to the screen. Just impeccable casting for Sam Cooke, because whenever they need him to get up onstage and musically command a crowd, it’s Leslie Odom Jr. Yeah, he can do that for you! No problem! Eli Goree, meanwhile, playing the cheerfully cocky young Cassius Clay, is probably the least known of the cast right now, but he did a very fine job in his important balancing role as the baby of the group. It was about a minute into Aldis Hodge’s first scene where something clicked in my brain and I asked, wait, is that handsome clock man? It is! He has a riveting presence. Out of the four, Jim Brown might be the lightest written role on the page, or perhaps just the quietest, but in Hodge’s hands you never forget that he’s in the room, and he absolutely commands his kind yet piercing half of the crown jewel of the two-hander scenes.
His scene partner there is Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X. At one point fairly early in this movie, I had to pause it for a moment to just silently process some feelings about Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X. Like a containment safety measure, like otherwise I was about to become overwhelmed. Like I needed to calibrate to his levels so I could make it through this. The reason I think I was feeling so much, is because Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X is also feeling so much. I don’t know the last time I saw a character that felt more like a prophet, and what I mean is the awkwardness. The genius of this, god it’s perfect. He’s intense and sure and lonely and worried, and he might be going too far but also not far enough, because that’s the curse of a prophet, and damn I loved all the choices of this performance! And when it at last struck me like a physical blow that I knew how this ends for Malcolm, that he’s Malcolm X, all my containment measures fell apart.
But this story here (mostly) takes place on just one night, in Miami, in February 1964. And when it ends, it ends with a cinematic technique, a gesture of editing and close ups, yet the feeling of it is one I recognized from the theatre, these days usually achieved with lighting cues but which I think of as a curtain falling in your heart. And that right there, is a beautiful piece of play adaptation.