By Jake Kuhn, Third Year, Film & Television
‘It's been too hard living, oh my and I'm afraid to die, I don't know what's up there beyond the clouds. It's been a long, long time coming, but I know, but I know a change is gotta come.’ - A Change is Gonna Come, Sam Cooke
On 25 February 1964, Cassius Clay, against 7-to-1 odds, became the heavyweight boxing champion of the world after defeating the notorious hard-hitter Sonny Liston at the Miami Beach Convention Centre. Clay was twenty-two years old at the time and as opposed to how one may imagine the young legend would celebrate such a victory, the truth may surprise you: he met with Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke in a small and not particularly stylish motel suite.
What was said in the room is known only to those four, yet the change that echoed outwards in their lives from that point onwards gave playwright Kemp Powers enough ideas of what may have been discussed.
As with most play-adaptations, the film’s dramatic conflict lies largely in what is said, rather than what is done. Luckily, the tight dialogue in Kemp Powers’ play is a moving celebration of the differences in perspectives and opinions of these four men that often are categorised under the same monolith of ‘Black Icon’.
The film burrows deep into their individual psyches, bringing to life their worries, hopes and shortcomings.
Unlike most rags-to-riches biopics, the beauty of One Night in Miami... (2020) is that it is not centred around the events in these characters lives, but rather the time in between
It is not about Cassius Clay’s fight against Sonny Liston: it is about the night afterwards. Perspective kicks in and allows reflection – something that is often difficult to show when a runtime forces you to move quickly onto the next event in that character’s individual life.
The problem with Powers’ script is that its interest lies solely in the conversation, that occurs in one single location, which places a lot of pressure on the director, Regina King (making her debut), to add all of the visual elements herself. Sidney Lumet and Mike Nichols proved that this is possible in their debut play adaptations, 12 Angry Men (1957) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966).
The true magic of King’s film is that it allows its characters to exist within the space and constantly tracks, with close attention, each reaction to the ideas presented through Powers’ dialogue
Regina King definitely focuses her efforts on the staging and acting of this story. Being an Oscar-winning actor herself, it’s not hard to work out why this is where her focus lies and why it pays off.
This is something that more technical directors occasionally lose whilst focusing on the cinematic language.
The presentation is simple and clean, with King using her softly-lit compositions to help the viewer clearly understand the changing power-dynamics between the protagonists. The acting is also nothing short of sensational, with the most developed role of Malcolm X being the clear standout (played by Kingsley Ben-Adir).
Following the year we’ve just had, the ending of One Night In Miami... could be seen a hopeful reminder to admire each other’s differences in an attempt to learn from them.
It could also be seen as a more sombre realisation that the larger change that Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Cassius Clay and Sam Cooke collectively wished for has still not happened.
By the end of 1964, two of the men in question would be dead, and the other two would have their identities shifted; Cassius Clay would be known as Muhammed Ali and Jim Brown would be largely known as a movie star. As a loving look to who they were in one particular moment, One Night in Miami... becomes a worthwhile tribute to four of the most iconic men of the last century.
Were you inspired by One Night in Miami...?