Through frameworks couched in biopics exploring the same era, Regina King’s committed, hopeful directorial debut One Night in Miami pieces together career-defining moments for Black icons through a trajectory historically embellished. Inspired by true events, the titular night in Miami is fronted by the intersecting careers of Cassius Clay, eventually Mohammed Ali (Eli Goree), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), King of Soul Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and NFL icon Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). In their shared nascence as emerging Black icons, they anatomise navigations of racism from all spaces of American culture: music, sport, and civil-rights activism. At the crux of the film is the vocalisation of their disparate experiences of segregation, religion, internal race tensions, self-weaponisation, and the radical and disputed approaches to their careers in the public eye.
Notably, much of the film takes place within the interior of a hotel room, a space allegorical for its confessional quality and absence of whiteness. The stage-like setting lends itself to the film’s theatrical source material, Kemp Powers’ 2013 play of the same title, and while its theatre origins are obvious they never construe King’s adaptation. In fact, the stagey quality provides ample opportunity for dialogue to take precedent over action, allowing time to deepen characterisation. Aside from rather hammy performances from minor characters, the generally neat transference from stage to screen is evidenced best, and most importantly, by Goree, Ben-Adir, Odom, and Hodge as they deftly navigate the idiosyncrasies of their characters in dialogue with each other.
Biopics, embedded with creative alterations, are prime Oscar bait. 2019 saw Quentin Tarantino’s sub-reality of 1960s Los Angeles, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, doused in iconography zealously romantic. Following the general praise of Tarantino’s film, and through its thematic departure from it, King’s own ‘alternate history’ film is absolutely worthy of and on track for the award season buzz it will inevitably attain. However, unlike Tarantino’s thrill-seeking straight-forwardness, One Night in Miami should not be simplified or condensed down to this emerging sub-genre, nor merely become a relic of nostalgia for a time of promising activism. Its meaning should not be deciphered through the accuracies or creativity of its historic representation. This is because the history One Night in Miami presents is not re-written for notional, apolitical ‘what ifs?’; it reimagines history by contextualising disparate icons in relation to each other in order to empower their perspectives, respectively, and as part of a whole. By unifying these figures and the experiences they describe, King transfers a landscape of 20th century racial politics to their necessary location in the mainstream, doing so exquisitely.
Effective imitation is intrinsic to the historic aspect of any biopic and can, to its own demise, yield meaningless caricatures. As a seasoned actor herself, and evident in her direction, King understands how to amplify the nuance of performance, and the prowess of the film’s direction is its organically Black perspective. In ways antithetical to the likes of similar race-biopics Green Book and 42, King’s direction is not white-washed nor contentiously tokenising in its perspectives. Undoubtedly, it is a tedious exercise to view such a self-assertive film in the context of its less convincing predecessors, but it is vital to recognise the lack of biopic films that exhibit Black characters outside the remit of white storytelling. By casting a powerhouse quartet of actors to play these roles, King fires on all cylinders for a hopeful box-office hit while acculturating Black history into mainstream cinema, from a point of view concerned with empowerment.
Though at times fringing on sentimentality – unavoidable in the biopic genre and thus forgivable – One Night in Miami bridges political history to the present and revitalises its pertinence, elevating the genre to uncharted terrains. Prioritising authenticity over gushy self-indulgence, One Night in Miami makes for a promising indication of a much-needed change within the biopic formula and successive, reverberant films which accommodate Black excellence and creativity.