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One night in Miami

With racial tensions at an all-time high after extraordinary events in 2020, One Night in Miami... arrives at a time when understanding and healing must be practiced. Based on Kemp Powers’ 2013 play of the same name, Night is a fictionalized account of a meeting between four icons where they contemplate and debate their roles towards civil rights activism. The four men – Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) meet at Malcolm’s hotel room, expecting to celebrate Clay’s upset victory over Sonny Liston. Instead, Brown, Cooke and Clay learn it’s just the four of them. The group are left to reflect on their accomplishments, but tensions rise as the night progresses.

Most of Night takes place in that hotel room, which means it’s dialogue driven, yet far from slow moving.

In 1964, racism and racial injustice was at an all-time high – a segregation protest in Atlanta resulted in 84 arrests; demonstrations were held at the Sheraton-Palace Hotel in San Francisco over racist hiring practices; in Mississippi, Ku Klux Klan members killed two 19-year-olds, although the two men arrested, Charles Marcus Edwards and James Ford Seale, were never tried; and civil rights workers disappeared near Meridian, Mississippi, their bodies were discovered near Philadelphia (this inspired the 1988 Oscar nominated film Mississippi Burning). When comparing those events to the Black Lives Matter rallies that resulted from the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, racial equality is just as relevant and important today as it was back then.

The 1964 events made the fight for racial equality a priority for X, Clay, Brown and Cooke, especially since they all were in a unique position of power with plenty of opportunities to voice their opinions. Although they uniformly believed change was necessary, they disagreed with how they should achieve that goal.

That is the foundation for the dramatized events in Night – Malcolm X’s militant views don’t mesh Cooke’s streamlining of his music and need to be accepted by whites; just as Clay’s rising stardom and supreme confidence looks naïve when compared to Brown’s jaded outlook towards football and his desire to parlay his on-field success into movie stardom. With all of this in one room, there’s sure to be some heated, emotional, deep and revelatory conversations.

Therein lies Night’s beauty. Powers uses his script to show this group as more than celebrities and tropes - they are black men with dreams, desires, emotions, strengths, and faults. Their true selves are on display as they contemplate how to use the power they earned to help make the changes necessary so all African-Americans can lead better, safer lives. Powers’ screenplay, in short, is excellent, as it humanizes four larger than life men.

They are flawed, like all people are, but they are noble and want to make the most of themselves and their opportunities. If nothing else, Night is a spectacular war of words that lands more significant blows than even the most powerful of Clay’s punches.

Also, Night serves as Oscar winner Regina King’s directorial debut. King used her superior acting talent and experience to coax top-tier performances from the cast.

Among them, possibly the most impressive (and certainly the most emotional) turn came from Leslie Odom Jr. Probably best known as an original Hamilton cast member (as Aaron Burr), the Queens native with a phenomenal signing voice convincingly played Cooke. Odom conveyed conflict, jealousy, anger and pain as Cooke was left to defend himself against Malcolm X’s attacks in which the activist essentially questioned Cooke’s blackness and his perceived lack of loyalty towards blacks.

Night is an ode to black men and their struggles. Yes, both black men and women face racism and hatred, but King and Powers realize the black man is the “symbol” and thus, the main target within racism’s crosshairs.

One Night in Miami... is riveting work with honest dialogue and excellent performances. The direction is impressive, even more impressive coming from a first-time director. But when that director is Regina King, one shouldn’t expect anything less.

One Night in Miami... premiered at the Venice Film Festival on September 7, 2020 and played in limited release on December 25, 2020. Finally, it was released digitally on January 15, 2021 via Amazon Prime.

4.5 stars out of 5

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