“It’s been a long
A long time coming
But I know a change gonna come
Oh, yes it will”
Watching Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke singing “A Change is Gonna Come” at the denouement of Regina King’s transcendental directorial debut “One Night in Miami” (2020) has got to be one of the most cathartic moments in cinema this year. “Oh, there been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long, but now I think I’m able, to carry on,” he croons – calming us, urging us. This anthem was the singer’s response to the tumultuous civil rights movement, but forty years later its message resonates louder than ever given our current state – and all the transmutations we’ve encountered this past year – all the growth – and the work we still have left to do to be a more inclusive and understanding society.
The movie is based on a play by the same name written by Kemp Powers also responsible for co-writing Pixar’s “Soul” (2020.) It fictionalizes a fateful gathering that actually did take place in Miami in 1964. On February 25 at the Miami Beach Convention Center, a 22-year-old underdog Cassius Clay (later to be known as Muhammad Ali) grabbed the world’s attention when he upset Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion of the world. “I shook up the world!” Cassius proclaimed in a ringside interview after he won. Three icons – friends of the boxer – were in the audience: Malcom X – who was the boxer’s spiritual advisor and who will encourage him to join the Nation of Islam – singer Sam Cooke and NFL star and actor Jim Brown. The men retired to a room at the Hampton Hotel for a private celebration. This fact is true. Playwright Powers imagines what took place inside the room. It looks at the private and public toils these men faced and the essential part they each played in the civil rights movement and cultural upheaval of the 1960s.
It starts with a brief introduction to the characters as the bout approaches. All of them – even with fame at their hands – endure some form of racial discrimination. Cooke is excited to perform at the Copacabana only to encounter walk outs from a snooty racist audience. Jim Brown is told he’s not allowed in the main house of his seemingly friendly neighbor. Clay is about to make a major change to his life – which will include a symbolic name change – and Malcolm X sees the role these black men in sports and entertainment can play in the change that he envisions for our country.
The heart of the narrative is these four bigger than life characters’ conversation inside four walls. At first you think that this is going to be theatrical and not at all cinematic. But its intimacy and the way that it is fluidly captured makes it utterly compelling and a privilege to observe. The ideas bandied about are specific and timeless, tireless and complex. What are the social responsibilities of an individual – in particular an artist or an athlete of color? Their interaction is extremely vulnerable, and it struck me how rare it is in cinema to see four men be willing to be so raw and open towards one another.
Regina King eloquently embraces the chamber piece quality of the material while finding lyrical ways to make it urgent and stimulating. Working with cinematographer Tami Reiker, the camera seems to be always gliding – and they work in this palette of strong blue colors contrasted with warm tones. Most importantly, King is able to get the four actors to give us exemplary performances – working so well together – that feels like a music ensemble – with very subtle tonal shifts in emotions. All four of them are worth praising. Aldis Hodge gained weight to portray Brown, gets the mannerisms just right – but it’s the stillness he finds in the character that draws you in. Eli Goree learnt to move in the ring like “The Greatest,” but it’s the way in which we watch the public showman switch off and become unguarded that is beautiful. Kingsley Ben-Adir is a revelation in the difficult role of Malcom. Last but not least, Tony Award-winning “Hamilton” sensation Leslie Odom Jr. is electrifying.
King enlisted Terrence Blanchard – one of the best composers in movies – to do the score. And he’s come up with this mostly piano underscoring that magnificently helps amplify each character and their words.
Sam: “Oh, there been times that I thought
I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able, to carry on”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime
Screenplay by Kemp Powers. Based on the stage play “One Night In Miami…” by Kemp Powers.
Directed by Regina King
Starring Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge and Leslie Odom Jr.
Director Regina King on Bringing “One Night in Miami” to the Screen
“I was looking to do a project theatrically, when my agent had asked me “what type of stories do you want to tell you know, once you start your career as a film director?” And one of the things I shared with him was a love story with a historical backdrop. And he brought this script [“One Night in Miami”] to me. If I’m being honest, I said, I was speaking more of a romantic love story, like “Titanic,” something like that, but with us. And this, in my opinion, this – is – a love story. And it’s a it’s a love letter to Black men. I also felt that my first time out as a film director, I should play to my strengths. A true actors piece is something that I would gravitate to as an actor. These are four men. No matter who you are, especially as a Black person, they have made an impact in some type of way, in your in your life…” (variety.com)
Kemp Powers on Writing “One Night in Miami”
Seven years ago, when Kemp Powers’ first play “One Night in Miami” debuted at the Rogue Machine Theatre to rave reviews and three L.A. Drama Critics Circle Awards, he was still the front page news editor at Yahoo. But soon after, when he got laid off with his stock vested and two years’ salary in the bank, he told himself, “Now’s a damn good time to make the leap of faith on your dream.” That dream had nothing to do with movies. The playwright was focused on making his play a success, moving it from regional theater to the Great White Way. “One Night in Miami” made it to the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2016, where it was nominated for an Olivier for Best New Play, but never transferred to the West End or Broadway. The story didn’t end there: The movie adaptation of that play, directed by Regina King in her behind-the-camera debut, launched Kemp right into the center of Oscar season…After 17 years of listening to people talk as a reporter, Powers said, “I learned to write in different voices.” Many of his actor friends kept asking him to write something for them to perform. “So many ideas about manhood are tied to overt testosterone and masculinity,” he said. “I know guys who are athletes, and there’s so much more to them in fighting or doing a sport than the physicality that is associated with them. I saw a wonderful opportunity to give Black actors roles that were worthy of them, that they were capable of.” Powers centered the play on the 1964 night in Miami after Cassius Clay wins the Heavyweight Championship of the World, and then meets back at the Hampton House Hotel with his three best friends. In Powers’ dramatization of the real meeting, the four men talk for hours about their mission as powerful Black men in racist, segregated America. Football star Jim Brown, restrained and controlled, is ready to jump to Hollywood, and acts as a conciliator with Nation of Islam activist Malcolm X, who is pushing Clay to become a Muslim (while he nips from a flask), and heatedly tells defensive crooner Sam Cooke to get serious about the messages his catchy hit songs can carry.
Powers understood how to spice up the play’s commerciality: “The focus should be to Mohammed Ali, by far the most famous of those men, the most beloved athlete in history of the world,” he said in a phone interview. “But the way it was structured, he’s the kid brother, he was 22, Brown was 28 and ready to retire, and Cooke and Malcolm were the elder statement in their 30s.” Powers was more compelled by showing who they were relaxing behind closed doors, not performing in public. “Mohammed Ali is the Trojan horse,” he said. “You open with the famous guy, you expect a play about boxing. Boxing is a metaphor, the ring is in the hotel room, and they’re all squaring off philosophically.” The central conflict of the debate between Malcolm and Cooke was based on an internal monologue inside Kemp’s head as he found himself the only person of color in the “Star Trek: Discovery” writers room. “How much of myself do I have to sacrifice to be accepted in this environment, in this world?” he said. “My psyche was split down the middle. I put these arguments back into the mouths of the men who inspired that way of thinking.” He fantasized that his play could be like Francis Coppola’s “The Outsiders.” “Everyone who was in it ended up being a star,” he said. “Swayze, Cruise, Macchio, Lowe, and Dillon.” If the play didn’t realize his initial ambition, Powers and his rookie film director, Emmy and Oscar-winning actress Regina King (“Watchmen,” “If Beale Street could Talk”) did it with the Venice break-out “One Night in Miami,” vaulting themselves into the awards fray along with rising stars Kingsley Ben-Adir (“The Comey Rule”) as Malcolm X, Leslie Odom, Jr. (“Hamilton”) as Cooke, Aldis Hodge (“Clemency”) as Brown, and Eli Goree (“Ballers”) as Clay. They all pulled off a high degree of difficulty — turning a talky play into compelling cinema — with help from producer Jody Klein, CEO of ABKCO Music & Records, Inc, which owns the rights to Cooke’s music, and coproducers Jess Wu Calder and Keith Calder (“Blindspotting,” “Anomalisa”).
When Powers turned to the play-to-script adaptation, he tore down the 85-minute one-room play and started over. In the film, he cuts to back stories to show the burdens “the four men were dealing with leading up to that night,” he said, “to show the fallout, after that night, that I was not able to do in the play. The first line of the play turns up at the 40-minute mark. Powers shared an ICM agent who represented King, who has directed a dozen TV episodes in preparation for directing a feature film. She Skyped Powers from the Atlanta set of “Watchmen.” They talked for a few hours and exchanged cell phone numbers. Even though she had not seen the play, “she was talking me into letting her direct,” Powers said. “We were super excited about each other.” While shooting “Watchmen,” King, who is as productive as she is busy, would text or call Powers with ideas. “She would pose a question,” he said. “‘In this scene, when he says this, what does it mean and what is he trying to get to?’ It was the Socratic method. So I tweaked the script before starting casting. She invited me to be there for auditions with the actors as well.” After all the years of library research Powers put into these characters, the production leaned on him as a resource. “I was a walking encyclopedia on these four guys,” he said. “I’d give her way more additional background.” During pre-production, King flew to New Orleans on three-day weekends to scout locations. “It has to be on the page to start with,” she said in a Zoom interview. “The heart of the story starts in the writer’s hands. You just cast actors you trust who have similar expectations as you, and want to embody these icons. All four actors never at any point wanted to do an imitation or impersonation. They went into their minds and hearts and bodies and souls.” What King demanded from the cast, even if they were playing testosterone-ridden alpha males, was to stay open to being vulnerable and emotionally honest with one another. “I always stressed to them, remember the humanity,” she said. “People who see pictures of [these icons] think they know them. We haven’t really explored the themes behind the image to take the time to capture those vulnerable moments that every human has, that men more often than women are not comfortable with exposing. It was constantly not playing the obvious beat but the nuanced moments.” (indiewire.com)
Director of Photography Tami Reiker on Regina King and “One Night in Miami”
“…She really wanted to use a lot of historical references, to use the exact location—we couldn’t use the exact location, but [we could] mimic the exact location of the Hampton House or [“The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson”]. We had all the footage. We studied the expo fights, the one in Wembley and the one in Miami, and we recreated that. We made a lookbook of visual references, [including] a lot of street photographers like Garry Winogrand, and definitely the “Greatest of All Time” Ali book. That was our bible for the fight; [it had] the most incredible photographs. And then creating the color palette, we worked really closely with the production designer and Francine [Jamison-Tanchuck], the costume designer. The four of us met in pre-production constantly, pulling colors and creating this very rich, saturated, vibrant palette with those vibrant blues and warms and greens that we felt were Miami, making sure we incorporated a lot of neon
….The vast majority of the film takes place in one room, and we didn’t have much rehearsal time. The actors were coming from all over the place. Kingsley was in London, Leslie was in New York, and they also are incredibly busy men—they had other projects that they were coming and going from, so we didn’t really get them until a few days before the actual filming started to see it on its feet in this space. I had already presented to Regina this idea that we both knew we wanted to keep the camera floating and moving and not have it static. And so I presented this idea that we would shoot A and B cameras on jib arms operated manually — the operators are swinging them so that the camera could always keep floating between characters and discovering different moments. We had these daunting 15-page scenes that were wall-to-wall dialogue, and Regina, being an actor-director, really wanted to give the actors the freedom to move within the space and discover things, [so] we would do 15-minute-long takes. It was a little bit daunting at first. It’s very hard for the entire crew when there are no marks on the ground; the cameraperson had to remember, seven minutes in, they’re going to move to the bathroom. But we couldn’t imagine doing it any other way, and I think the actors really loved it also.” (backstage.com)
Actor Aldis Hodge on “One Night in Miami”
“When coming to the film, I knew that [it] had potential for purpose. Watching the film later, the conversations hit so much differently. It made me feel verified and validated that we are doing our part and serving a purpose for the time now. Having you, Regina, as our leader on this is the most appropriate way to go about it. Some may see this film and see Black men and only think about the Black man’s experience, when in actuality, we’re representing the totality of the Black experience, especially in America. It’s not singularly just the Black men; we are led by a Black woman. In my experience, in this country, we, as Black men, have been most protected by the Black women. So for our sisters, this film is about y’all, too, an acknowledgment of y’all, too. The strength that we exhibit on screen, part of that is the strength that we get from y’all.” (ew.com)
About Director Regina King
Regina King is a film and television actress and director. She played Brenda Jenkins on the NBC sitcom “227” and had a supporting role in the feature film “Jerry Maguire.” King in her later career became widely known for her leading roles in two Peabody award winning television shows “The Boondocks” where she provided the voices Huey and Riley Freeman and “Southland” where she portrayed Detective Lydia Adams. The latter role earned her two nominations for the Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series in 2012 and 2013. In 2015, King began starring in the ABC anthology series “American Crime.” She is also known for her recurring role Janine Davis on “The Big Bang Theory” and starring in the films “Ray,” “Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous,” “Poetic Justice,” “Friday,” “A Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” “Enemy of the State,” “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde,” and “A Cinderella Story.” In 2018, she starred on the short-lived Netflix drama “Seven Seconds” and earned a fourth Emmy nomination. King won her fourth Emmy Award in 2020 for starring in the superhero television series “Watchmen.” (emmys.com) King made her directorial debut in 2020 with the film, “One Night in Miami.”