Stage-to-film adaptations can go one of two ways. In simple terms, they either expand upon the original text by opening the setting and probing deeper into its world and characters, or they feel frustratingly “stagy” by failing to use the cinematic medium to offer any sort of enhanced scope or alternative experience. The directorial debut from Oscar-winning actress Regina King, an adaptation of Kemp Powers’ masterful play One Night in Miami, falls somewhere in-between these two approaches.
The celebrated one-act play, which takes place entirely in a Miami motel room, is a fictional account that sees four legends – Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown – gathering to celebrate Ali’s title win over Sonny Liston in 1963. As the night goes on, their joviality gives way to tense and heated discussions around their roles in the civil rights movement and cultural upheaval of the 1960s. The film, sadly more timely than ever, expands upon this setting by adding a prologue in which each of the four characters are introduced before the fateful night, along with brief departures from the motel room throughout the film. But despite the aforementioned “stagy” approach, it is the sequences that feel authentic to the original text that offer the film’s most memorable moments. The four leads are flawless and enjoy perfect chemistry, both in the scenes of joyful camaraderie and intense debate. Scenes within the motel room are endlessly compelling, as the men lay out their differing beliefs and perspectives on the world they find themselves in. Kemp Powers’ layered dialogue is remarkable and packed with complex themes and powerful emotion, heightened only by the incredible performances from the leads.
The film does take a while to find its feet, however. The new prologue, bouncing between the four characters before their iconic motel meeting, is a little haphazard, and perhaps straying a little too closely to cliché. It rather heavy-handedly presents simple characterisation along with a particularly hard-hitting instance of racism experienced by Aldis Hodge’s Jim Brown, which although important to the narrative at large, was perhaps better as implied in Powers’ original text. Even those unfamiliar with the original play will almost certainly be able to tell where this new material ends and the play’s content begins, as the prologue’s scope immediately disappears as the men enter the motel room. It is here where the play began and where the film’s quality begins its upward trajectory, so it is difficult to see why this new opening was even included. The screenplay here is adapted by the original playwright Kemp Powers himself, though, who is having a great year having also co-directed Disney/Pixar’s latest masterpiece Soul.
One Night in Miami’s first act may be weak, but the second onward are marvellously performed if a little unadventurously shot by King, slowly building to a powerful and poignant climax as we get to know the four men inside and out. Leslie Odom Jr. is a particular revelation as Sam Cooke, who along with delivering the powerful dialogue also has the challenge or performing Cooke’s timeless songs – culminating in an inspiring and life-affirming performance of A Change is Gonna Come over the film’s closing climax. He is mesmerising, but matched confidently by the other three leads who each portray the iconic figures flawlessly. Kingsley Ben-Adir, who recently portrayed Obama in The Comey Rule, makes for a perfect Malcolm X while Eli Goree was born to take up the gloves of the “World’s Greatest” Ali.
“One can never be too busy for some added perspective”, Malcolm X states in the film, and that is true of the film itself. One Night in Miami offers a valuable and poignant look at the battles the four figures in the story faced, and it is troubling how many of the discussed issues are still so prevalent in 2021. And while the direction isn’t particularly inventive – the film’s roots as a play are strongly felt – it is the provocative and riveting dialogue, and the captivating performances of the four leads, that draw the viewer in. One Night in Miami is a powerful and thought-provoking film that offers a valuable insight into the times it portrays, and sadly, the times we are still in.