The feature-film directorial debut of Emmy and Academy Award-winning actress Regina King will leave a significant mark in the history of the Venice Film Festival, since its 77th edition welcomed One Night in Miami as the first film directed by an African American woman to screen on the Lido. Even more importantly, the film’s premiere in 2020 of all years strengthens the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement and stands against all forms of racial discrimination. These are the issues at stake in this fictionalized version of the night of February 25th, 1964 in Miami Beach, as four eminent men gathered to celebrate a major victory. That was the night when Cassius Clay became the world’s heavyweight boxing champion in a major upset against Sonny Liston. It is the most timely film to screen in Venice, if timeliness is treated as a quality that transcends political and geographic boundaries, to actually address questions of the imminent present.
The film itself is based on Kemp Powers’s eponymous play that lends itself perfectly to King’s directional approach which is equal parts visceral and attentive to the script’s verbosity. Off to a heavy start with intense boxing sequences piling one after the other, One Night in Miami does not tread lightly in the ring, as Tami Reiker’s camera flutters around but rarely frames the opponents from afar, trading the safe-distance long shot for over the shoulder proximity. This is a film that has a properly ethical stance on the human face – each individual is given enough screen time even in intense cheering audience shots. Eli Goree inhabits the role of Clay and conveys a mixture of shyness and ego in an immensely tender way.
Meanwhile, the other protagonists are introduced one by one in a series of tone-shifting encounters, all of which start from a good intent and end on a high note of racism. For Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) it’s a refusal to come into his (otherwise welcoming) acquaintance, Malcolm X’s (Kingsley Ben-Adir) paranoia of being followed, and for Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) it’s the half-empty Copacabana. These four extraordinary men are brought together and set apart multiple times during the film’s near two hour runtime, and the place of encounter (The Hampton Hotel) is explored again and again with more choreographic rigor than any theatre set would allow. Most of the film unfolds in the classical dramatic unity of time, place, and action, combined with the snappy and perspicacious dialogue but that alone does not make out of One Night in Miami a film of solely words.
King’s command of emotions is owed only partly to the quartet of excellent performances that bounce off each other even in moments of heartfelt disagreement regarding the status of Black men’s labour in relation with the white-sponsored economy, or the tensions around Malcolm’s retreat from the Nation of Islam and issues of racial separatism. The film is strung out of sequences brimming with intense and pure emotion that imbues both the words and their bearers with the light of the much-needed social change that, indeed, is taking too long even now to be complete. But by articulating and enacting the controversies and disputes of not only the economic and personal relationships with white people but the inner tensions of class and social status within Black communities, the film proves to serve both an educational and effective tool for change.
One Night In Miami is truly an outstanding debut, and while it is not possible to locate its beating heart, the reason is simple: all of it is hearty, vital, and indispensable. Its nuances speak volumes to the issues of today, addressing both the weaponization of words and the rhetoric empowerment that is and should be, as the film’s end testifies, never far removed from its counterpoints in action.
This review is from the 77th Venice International Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release One Night in Miami in the US this fall.
Savina Petkova is a Bulgarian freelance film critic based in London. Her bylines include MUBI Notebook, photogenie, Electric Ghost Magazine, Girls On Tops and Screen Queens.