Toronto International Film Festival 2020: ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI

Commencing it’s North American festival run at the forty-fifth edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, One Night In Miami represents Academy-Award winning actress Regina King’s feature-length directorial debut, and is based on the titular play by Kemp Powers. Set primarily in a single motel room the night after Cassius Clay’s world championship win, the drama tells the story of the meeting between four pivotal African-American figures in American culture; Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr.), Jim Brown (The Invisible Man’s Aldis Hodge), and Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), as they change the course of history in the segregated South.

A Passive Start

Starting off with a bang, One Night In Miami opens in the midst of a tightly challenged boxing match that Clay is competing in. After a narrow result, we are introduced to the rest of the central characters as they confront instances of racism in their daily lives, Cooke at a Copacabana club and Brown in the home of a longtime acquaintance. Showcasing how even during these times, racism was still heavily prevalent in American culture, we see how all parties treat this as a fact of life, with both Cooke and Brown begrudgingly accepting their respective situations with minimal resistance. 

Toronto International Film Festival 2020: ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI
source: Toronto International Film Festival

Flashing forward to the day of Clay’s win, the four figures intersect during his fight, including a photograph-snapping Malcolm X who is there as Clay’s spiritual advisor amidst much controversy, However, despite the relatively brisk and efficient setup, the film does take a lengthy amount of time to start truly moving forward. Without a sense of urgency, the scattershot narrative seems directionless as the central group hasn’t quite gelled yet. While one can appreciate the time King and Powers take to properly set up each character’s viewpoints, the way in which they do so falls slightly flat. Coming off as redundant exposition that only serves a single purpose amidst a slew of intriguing characters, it results in a digestible but unengaging second quarter of the film.

A Performance-Driven Showcase

Yet, once the actors have been unburdened from the deliverance of their exposition-based lines, the chemistry of the group begins to shine through. A stunning range of dynamics is presented throughout the film and portrayed by the actors in a believable fashion, displaying the slow descent from playful banter to palpable tension and ultimately serious cathartic realizations that benefit all. The chemistry between the four proves to be a notable strength of the film, ensuring that the viewer is engaged at all times and truly invested in the central story. 

This palpable chemistry, however, is only present because of the sheer talent excluded by the four leads. A true actor’s showcase of powerhouse performances all around, each performer is given the time and depth to shine in their role and take advantage of situations where they believably express a full range of emotions. While each of the four are brilliant in their own unique ways, the true standouts here are Kingsley Ben-Adir and Leslie Odom Jr. Arguably the embodiment of the central conflicts of the film, they play off of each other as their characters debate the initiatives and extent of the impact powerful African-American men like themselves have in the communities on both sides of the issue of segregation, passionately scrutinizing the other’s values through shouting matches and heartfelt conversations that give a certain dramatic nuance to the film itself. 

A Worthy Translation

The success of these dynamics and incredibly impactful performances can be chalked up to no other than the film’s director Regina King. Seemingly carving a name for herself as a true actor’s director, she is able to properly guide all four leads to the performances of their lifetimes. Her newfound prowess doesn’t stop there, as her steady directorial hand shows the propagation of a clear vision throughout all other aspects of the production as well. The cinematography and production design by Tami Reiker and Barry Robison are able to exquisitely capture the relaxed nature of the mid-1960’s Miami atmosphere while still imbuing it with a sense of professionalism stemming from the ways in which the leads carry themselves in their culture. 

Toronto International Film Festival 2020: ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI
source: Toronto International Film Festival

However, the heart of the film is inarguably Kemp Powers’ self adapted screenplay. While the narrative frame of the play will be noted by even untrained eyes, the dialogue-rich script creates an ever-moving web of debates that plays like a symphony of brilliance, pairing and repairing the protagonists in various permutations that result in a full and multifaceted narrative with a wealth of ideas and thematic depth bursting out of every seam. A surefire shoo-in for screenplay nominations across the board, it showcases a well-rounded and authentic set of perspectives from various angles of the African-American community that suffered through those times. 

The Call To Action/Fighting For What Is Right

The central conflict of the film itself, though, is focused on each character’s inner struggle to come to terms with their identity. Sam Cooke is already a successful soul king but is accused by Malcolm X of pandering to white America and not having the initiative or courage to write a song that fights for a cause. Cassius Clay is high off his championship win but grapples with whether or not he wants to truly go forward with becoming a Muslim and become a vocal member of the cause. Jim Brown struggles to choose between a limited football or a risky film career, while even Malcolm X himself, the unifier of the four, is having doubts about his association with the brotherhood of Islam. 

Ultimately, through the multilayered conversations brilliantly orchestrated by King and Powers, the four men help develop each other’s characters and sense of self, resulting in each character taking a stand for the issues they believe in and fighting for what is right, executed in the manner of an emotionally magnificent climax that concludes a film that is both timely and relevant, especially in the light of recent movements that aim to put a spotlight on doing exactly what the protagonists have learned to do: use their powerful voices to create institutional change for the betterment of all humanity. 

An Important Film

Overall, while One Night In Miami starts off slow, Regina King’s brilliant debut at the helm enables the film to overcome its start, to quickly become an engaging showcase of powerhouse performances that heighten an incredibly timely screenplay brimming with thematic depth. A perfectly timed film that corresponds intimately to the social issues we are living through, One Night In Miami is one to watch as awards season begins to creep closer and results in one of the most important films of the year so far. 

How excited are you to watch One Night In Miami? Do you think it has the momentum to nab the best-picture crown? Sound off in the comments below.

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