Regina King‘s One Night in Miami, which I saw and reviewed four months ago, is now streaming on Amazon Prime. I haven’t re-watched it, but it’s best to trust your initial reaction. Here’s what I said:
Variety award-season columnist Clayton Davis was apparently floating on a cloud while writing his review of Regina King‘s One Night In Miami, calling it “the first solid Oscar contender to drop in the fall festival circuit.”
All right, let’s calm down. Yes, this is a respectable, well-acted film in a disciplined and concentrated sort of way. But as interesting as it is and as admired as King may be for doing a better-than-decent job, One Night in Miami is basically a stage play and that shit only goes so far.
I don’t know how to explain it in so many words, but I somehow expected that a film about a February 1964 meeting between Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke in a Miami hotel room would amount to something more than what this movie conveys.
Playwright Kemp Powers has adapted his 2013 play about African American identity in the ’60s.The result is not great or brilliant, but it’s good enough in terms of observational fibre and social relevance, or at least the second half is. But the fact that it was directed by King doesn’t make it any more or less than what it actually is.
And for a film that largely (65% or 70%) takes place in a single hotel room, it visually underwhelms. Tami Reiker‘s cinematography doesn’t match the high water marks of Boris Kaufman‘s one-room lensing of 12 Angry Men or Glen MacWilliams‘ cinematography for Hitchcock’s Lifeboat.
Denzel Washington’s titular performance in Spike Lee‘s Malcolm X was a tougher and more resolute dude than Kingsley Ben-Adir‘s version. Malcolm won’t stop beating up on poor Sam Cooke, and he seems weak when he asks Cassius (“Cass”) to join him in breaking with Elijah Muhammad. And he weeps! Just not the solemn, heroic figure that I’ve been reading about all these years. And wasn’t he wearing that carefully trimmed Van Dyke beard in ‘64?
Good moment: When Cooke criticizes Malcolm for reacting in a cold, racially dismissive way when JFK was murdered (“The chickens coming home to roost”). Cooke says his mother cried over the news, and Clay says his momma cried too.
Leslie Odom, Jr. is quite good as Cooke, but I didn’t believe an early scene at the Copacabana in which the snooty white clientele reacts to Cooke’s singing with derision and rudeness. In ’64 Cook was known all over as a major-league crooner who had released a cavalcade of hits going back to ‘57. No way would an audience of uptown swells treat him like that. Even if they didn’t like his act, the middle-class politeness instinct is too embedded.
I felt the same contemptuous attitude toward whiteys in the Copa scene that Ava DuVernay showed when she invented that Selma scenario in which LBJ told J. Edgar Hoover to tape-record MLK’s sexual motel encounters in order to pressure him into not pushing for the Voting Rights Act. You’ll recall how Joseph Califano called b.s. on that.
The postscript reminds that Malcolm X was murdered by gunfire a year later, but it ignores Cooke’s death in Los Angeles less than a year later. That tells you that King is a bit of a spinner — she didn’t want to leave the audience with a downish, mystifying epilogue. But it happened.
Journo pally: “I don’t think it’s a ‘great’ or ‘brilliant’ film either, and never said that it was (12 Angry Men is one of my favorite films of all time!), but why does it have to be?
“I think you’re leaving out how much fascinating thought and feeling there is to it, and also that Denzel may have been playing off the public Malcolm more than this performance does. I think Ben-Adir very much captures Malcolm, who could be warm and funny. Malcolm, in his own way, was a great actor — the Malcolm we saw in public was a performance.
“One Night in Miami isn’t a great movie (far from it), but in its small-scale way it’s an exciting movie, and at its best superbly acted. I would gladly see it again tonight.”
HE: “And I chuckled at that blunt candor moment when Jim Brown said he wasn’t down with the Muslim lifestyle because, in part, he likes white women.”
Journo pally: “I’m sure the real conversation was 12 times raunchier than that. I mean, one of the things I accept about this movie is that there’s a certain well-made-play decorousness to it. That’s why it’s not great or brilliant.
“One Night in Miami is a real middlebrow, meat-and-potatoes movie — you know you’re watching a conceit (even though the meeting did, in fact, happen). It’s tidy in a certain way. But given all of that, there’s a life to it. And yes, Aldis Hodge-as-Jim Brown was so good that just with that one line about white women (and a couple of others), he sort of implied the whole wild side of Brown. Now that‘s a biopic (at least, done honestly) I’d love to see.”