A good biopic captures a moment in time and teaches viewers history. A great biopic feels like you are living in a moment that creates history. “One Night in Miami” features four American icons in a hotel room in Miami, on a February night discussing their goals and struggles, while also sharing their experiences of being Black in America.
Directed by Academy Award-winning actress Regina King, the film features a young Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) meeting up in Miami after Clay won the World Heavyweight Championship in boxing.
As a first-time director, King’s direction is effortless. Her focus on the characters and creating engaging shots makes “One Night in Miami” less of a history lesson and more of a character study on America’s greatest.
Ben-Adir’s portrayal of the late Malcolm X reminds viewers that the Civil Rights icon’s activism spread far beyond speeches and interviews. He is able to turn a polarizing figure into a man who is warm, insightful and passionate about his beliefs. That’s not to say Ben-Adir waters down Malcolm X — in fact, far from it. Midway through the movie, Malcolm X has an argument with Cooke about his legacy and how white people view him, which is thought-provoking.
Odom Jr. is also spectacular as the late Cooke. He is able to match both the singing voice and personality of Cooke, while also forming his own character. Odom Jr.’s performance is arguably the best in the film. That is saying a lot, considering how terrific Hodge and Goree are in their respective parts.
The most impactful aspect of “One Night in Miami” is the screenwriting from Kemp Powers. His writing, along with King’s precise direction, brings out the conflicting personalities of the main characters without turning the film into a cacophony of chaos.
The dim but balanced lighting setup matches a hotel room approaching nighttime. The brightness is never overbearing, but not dark enough to dilute any scene. It allows each of the passionate protagonists to air out their grievances without compromising any of their traits.
Where the film could use some improvements is with its pacing. Scenes in the hotel room sometimes feel slower than a typical movie, which is great if King’s aim was to mirror real life. But given the kinetic and explosive nature of Malcolm X and Clay, Powers and King should have attempted to speed up the pace of the film just to catch up with the characters they were filming.
“One Night in Miami” is an example of letting the characters tell their history instead of history telling the characters. King has limitless potential as a director and all of the lead actors deserve awards for their accurate and dynamic acting.
It is not often that audiences see a portrayal of historical figures that are not whitewashed or drowned in a blanket of a pseudo-savior role whose sole purpose is to comfort instead of confronting history. King shies away from lying to audiences and instead presents a truth that will make some uncomfortable, but most, informed.