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"ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI"
(2020) (Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: After winning the world heavyweight championship, Cassius Clay is joined by Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke as they discuss being black in a white-dominated country and their roles of being famous dealing with that.
PLOT:

It's 1964 and Cassius Clay (ELI GOREE) has just defeated Sonny Liston to become boxing's heavyweight champion of the world. After his victory, he joins his friend and mentor, Malcolm X (KINGSLEY BEN-ADIR), along with football legend Jim Brown (ALDIS HODGE) and recording superstar Sam Cooke (LESLIE ODOM JR.), to celebrate. But what the men don't realize is that Malcolm wants them to discuss their roles in furthering black equality in America as famous men, with Sam and Jim also not realizing that Cassius is about to convert to Islam.

With Nation of Islam bodyguards Kareem X (LANCE REDDICK) and Jamaal (CHRISTIAN MAGBY) guarding the door of their Miami motel room, Sam and Jim react to the lack of a party atmosphere along with Malcolm's insistence that they, along with Cassius, use their fame to further the cause. All of which leads to tension among the men who end up in that conversation with differing viewpoints.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10

I've had the good fortune of attending the Critics Choice Awards over the past decade and rubbing elbows with Hollywood types who are famous for what they do in front of as well as behind the camera. But unlike the Oscars or Golden Globes where many attendees stick around for the official after-party, those at our show disappear like roaches once the lights come up.

I'm not kidding. I've never seen so many recognizable faces at one moment only to have nearly all of them disappear in less than five minutes. I get that they don't want to be swarmed by us regular folks -- who have already been doing that during commercial breaks -- but it's almost like a Vegas magic show where a curtain is raised around them, some words and dramatic music are heard, and the curtain drops to reveal that -- presto -- they're gone.

I guess, of course, that most depart for some secret location to continue partying, but I always wonder what they talk about. Is it just like everyone else where they chat about the week's events, their kids, and shop talk? Or, considering their position in the public eye and the fact that they have degrees of sway the rest of us don't, are they discussing or debating how they should -- or shouldn't -- be using their "power?"

That came to mind before sitting down to watch one of the best films of 2020 where four notable figures from yesteryear -- they being NFL legend Jim Brown, popular singer Sam Cooke, controversial political figure Malcolm X, and boxer Cassius Clay -- gather to celebrate the accomplishments of the latter on the night of February 25, 1964.

While that might sound like a flight of fancy bit dreamed up by a screenwriter, the meeting actually happened. But what was discussed mostly remains a mystery to this day and with only Brown still alive, it might forever remain that way.

Undeterred by that, and considering their fame as black men in a country still very much dominated by white faces, playwright Kemp Powers imagined what they might have discussed in terms of race relations, religion, and more and came up with the 2013 play "One Night in Miami."

He's now adapted that work into a screenplay for a film of the same name that's been directed by actress turned filmmaker Regina King who's making her feature-length debut behind the camera (after cutting her teeth on various TV show episodes).

And what an assured debut it is, complete with a terrific script and great performances from the lead actors -- Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X, Eli Goree as Clay (right before becoming Muhammad Ali), Aldis Hodge as Brown, and Leslie Odom Jr. as Cooke. Expect lots of Oscar and related nominations headed this film's way.

Keeping with its stage roots, and notwithstanding the opening sequence and a few other exceptions, King keeps most of what transpires in a small motel room that belies the status of those inside. While that might sound stagey and/or limited in its visual appeal, King and cinematographer Tami Reiker keep things moving and always interesting, no doubt helped by Powers' words (and the timely -- then and now -- topics discussed) and the delivery -- and then some -- by the performers.

All four are terrific, but having only seen random footage of Brown and Cooke from that era, I don't have a great reference point for how well Hodge and Odom Jr. pull off playing them (none of which denigrates their great work). But Goree and Ben-Adir nail the real-life men to the point that I nearly felt like I was watching the real thing.

In my opinion, the best offerings are those that both entertain and enlighten or at least evoke post-viewing debate and this is certainly one of those. If anything, it might give us some insight into what famous people talk (or talked) about when they assemble(d). Great all around, "One Night in Miami" rates as an 8 out of 10.




Reviewed January 13, 2021 / Posted January 15, 2021


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