One night, Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, and Jim Brown met together in the same motel room. Sound too good to be true? Well, think again! In this historic retelling based on the 2013 stage play by Kemp Powers, One Night in Miami delves into the psychology of the brotherhood these men shared, including whatever rivalries they had with one another. Not only that, but it uses their four influences on society to paint a more complex portrait of America then and now, how our visions of the future never align on the same plane. This movie ultimately does what is necessary to remind us how the state we’re in today is not what America ideally needs to be.
As the film opens, Cassius is seen in a boxing match, putting you into the perspective of these four men: they’re all above most of society, but in positions designed to be opposed against each other. Sam Cooke is that same way too: his music isn’t appreciated, his performance bombs, this is bad news to him, but good news to the one who supervises that venue. While the general public may love their athletes and musicians, those who manage the celebrities have the power to set them up to fail. You really do feel these guys are old friends by the way they refer to each other as “brother,” which when you think about it, has a much deeper meaning: they get into fights, but at the end of the day, still love each other, in fact, even stronger as a result of their fighting and eventual understanding. Amidst the bickering, Sam Cooke talks about the way he deals with a live performance mishap, which inspires you to see how those who are frequently mistreated turn a bad situation into a great one.
All four of them are fighting for their lives as they see the bad news that White men in America see as good news. It’s symbolized by the title card, which appears over that famous shot of Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in the swimming pool; this should right away excite some fans of his, as it offers a whole new level of respect for what he had to endure.
Except this movie isn’t for everyone, as most will not be able to ignore how this movie was obviously based on a play just by looking at the boring cinematography. Like really, it gets very boring with the excessive amount of talking, especially since Regina King’s direction doesn’t do much to make the visual aspect of the conversations more dramatic in the cinematic medium. There is also a random aerial shot of the boxing to prove her forced attempts at making the script cinematic. The cinematography is at its best when it features the view of hot sunbeams behind Georgia trees. Things like that help put you right into the time and place, not the standard lighting setups inside the tiny motel room. But even inside the hotel room, there is an unnecessary flashback scene of Sam Cooke’s redemptive performance, which breaks the flow of the exceedingly long conversation that the massive majority of the film structures itself around, and nothing is conveyed in the visual of the scene that couldn’t be conveyed through spoken dialogue like in every other scene. Plus, there is a focus on one’s mirror reflection while the actor is out of focus, just for the focus to be the other way around in the next shot. I doubt this was intentional.
There are more technical errors, such as some bad CGI flames, and one badly composed shot of a camera’s viewfinder. In addition, the boxing match is too safe in its grit, not like the most iconic boxing movies ever: Rocky and Raging Bull. While this isn’t as intense as the latter or specifically about boxing like both, it still needs to look more realistic. Show some blood! Go all out with the R-rating! And more importantly, make sure the digital effects aren’t obvious. Otherwise, this will look like a straight-to-streaming movie that isn’t made any more convincing with the poor digital backgrounds. Any attempts to make this movie feel huge just don’t work.
But aside from the weak technical points, the four men act very much true to their real-life counterparts, so much so, that it sparks right back to today, because it shows how Black men in 2020 felt about helping their kind was precisely the same as it was almost sixty years ago. It’s not easy imitating someone based on how they were way in the past, but these actors pulled it off! This film overall has a full understanding of the time, particularly in the design of the motel, which captures the feel of the decade perfectly. It’s so grounded in reality, you’d think you were there transported back in time and watching them do the real thing live. It makes you feel the emotions they felt back then too, as the tint of the screen warms it up to look like Miami, so you sense the very blood that pumps the city throughout the Civil Rights Movement.
Yet the real power is in the actors, who all have such great chemistry as they sustain proper eye contact. One of them calls White men the “devil,” to prove just how horrifying yet potentially beneficial this wakeup call of a night this is for their conflict. The mannerisms of the actors are always terrific, especially in the scene where Cassius has a lesson in Muslim prayer to appropriate music; the dialogue during this scene reveals so much about who he and Malcolm X truly are, telling you all about what kind of news appeals to their senses without straight-up saying what they are.
Some of you may say you like the state America is in right now. Some of you may say you hate it. You may say we were better off with Trump, you may say we’ll improve with Biden. Wherever you stand, there’s ultimately one thing that One Night in Miami makes clear: We all share the future together. So let’s not make it a future where we turn people into labels. Each of these four men taught us something different about how we must live differently, if we want 2021 to be a great year after the atrocity that was 2020.
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!