Opening Up the Oscars: ‘One Night in Miami…’

Oscars+statuettes.+%28Courtesy+Flickr%29+

Oscars statuettes. (Courtesy Flickr)

By Luke Jackson, Arts Writer

Feb. 25, 1964, has forever been branded as one of the most exciting and controversial events in boxing history. Florida exploded as 22-year-old Cassius Clay walked away with the title of World Heavyweight Champion without sustaining so much as a scratch from his opponent. The Liston vs. Clay fight has been analyzed, talked about and watched extensively over the last 57 years, but Regina King’s directorial debut “One Night in Miami…” doesn’t expand on the fight, but on what occurred in the hours directly after. Based on Kemp Powers’ Broadway play by the same name, “One Night in Miami…” is a fictionalized account of the night of Cassius Clay’s victory.

Many big names were in Miami to catch a glimpse of this glory, including Cassius Clay’s (Eli Goree) close friends Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). The film centers around these four men, each a legend in their own respect, and the conversations they had over one evening about the political and social turmoil of the 1960s. While the conversations seen in the film are fictional, Powers impressively captures the essence of the four black icons and delivers beautifully realistic dialogue. We will never know what truly went on in Malcolm X’s hotel room that night. However, I am confident the soul and spirit of what was actually discussed is almost identical to this retelling.

Stage to Screen

The film itself suffers at times due to its roots in live theatre. It is extremely dialogue-heavy, and much of the actual action occurs in one room. Though the writing is engaging, the cinematic medium does not allow for the same breadth and weight as it might in a live setting. The score is minimal, there is almost no non-diegetic sound, causing the viewer to focus solely on the words being said. At times, this allows for powerful messages of race inequality, personal potential and the struggle for Black power to sink in the viewer’s mind. Unfortunately, the lack of musical assistance also causes some lines to fall short and create an atmosphere of disconnection between the characters and the audience. Altogether, “One Night in Miami…” has some truly inspiring and heartful moments, but it never breaks into masterpiece territory.

Another element that held this film back for me was its expectation of viewer knowledge. For about the first hour of the film, I felt that it was relying on context to create a connection. My knowledge is of Cassius Clay — who became known later in life as Muhammad Ali — as for Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown, it’s limited. I know the characters’ histories, but that knowledge doesn’t constitute automatic connections to the story. Granted, this comment may say more about me and my contextual understanding of the setting, but, personally, my heart was not truly won over until this film hit the hour mark. I strongly desired to love each of these characters, and unfortunately, I didn’t for about half the movie. The characters hadn’t yet earned the audience’s trust through the film’s writing and use of circumstance.

On a positive note, when the hour mark does hit, “One Night in Miami…” seems to transform. Each line lands, and the brevity of the civil rights movement is brought to the forefront. Leslie Odom Jr. proves there is nothing he can’t do with his stunning performance as Sam “King of Soul” Cooke. Odom Jr. grounds the other actors’ performances and lends energy that was clearly contagious. It wasn’t until a monologue of his, delivered an hour into the film, that I felt the other actors come into their own. Overall, each of the four main performances was notable, but I am unsurprised that Odom Jr.’s was the one that received the Oscar nod.

Breakout Moments

“One Night in Miami…” is an important film that stands as a pertinent reminder of the racial inequality that still exists today. It allows us to reflect on how far we have come since the time of Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown, while simultaneously reminding us there is much to be done. Cinematically, it gives us an exciting breakout director in Regina King and shows us Kemp Powers’ knack for bringing soul to the screen. In addition to Odom Jr.’s Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the 2021 awards show, Powers is nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for his transformation of the play. “One Night In Miami…” may not be an Oscar frontrunner, but I do look forward to seeing what comes next from the stars and directors of this film.

 

You can stream “One Night in Miami…” on Amazon Prime and tune into the 93rd Academy Awards on Sunday, April 25.

 

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