You can often get some idea of a filmmaker’s prospects by the quality of craftspeople with whom they surround themselves as collaborators, and that might be especially true with first-time directors. When an Oscar-winning actor like Regina King chooses to direct her first movie, it’s going to be watched with particularly close scrutiny, so many will be surprised that King’s debut, One Night in Miami…, might, in fact, be one of the best films they watch this year.
It’s February 25, 1964, Miami Beach, Florida, and Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) just won his first World Championship to Sonny Liston. Some of his equally-renowned friends have come down to Miami to celebrate with him: soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), football great Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and controversial black leader Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). All four men have reached a crossroads in their lives, but Clay was a mere week away from proclaiming his loyalty to the Nation of Islam and changing his name to “Muhammad Ali.”
One Night in Miami… is adapted by Kemp Powers from his own stage play. (Interesting side note: Powers also co-wrote and co-directed Pixar’s upcoming animated film Soul, which will stream on Disney+ on Christmas Day.) It’s very much a movie that leans heavily on Powers’ fantastic words and the actor’s performances, but there’s no denying how much King and her team bring to making this a visually-compelling story despite mostly taking place in a single location.
Much of the film’s astounding look can be attributed to Miami’s Cinematographer Tami Reiker (The Old Guard), who uses smart lighting and lens choices to help set the tone of the early ‘60s, capturing the characters and locations in such a way that neither feels nostalgic, nor retro. When much of the film takes place in a simple, unglamorous hotel room, but Reiker creates what feels like natural lighting that would reflect the lighting from the inside of said room. In some ways, Reiker’s work is comparable to that of DP Shabier Kirchner, who filmed Steve McQueen’s Small Axe Anthology, another period drama that needs to recreate the feel of a number of different times, particularly a ‘70s house party in Lovers Rock – coincidentally, that is also an Amazon Studios project.
Probably King’s greatest asset is her Production Design team of Barry Robison (Hacksaw Ridge) and Page Buckner (Django Unchained). Although much of the film does take place in a single hotel room, the characters frequently venture outside to the well-recreated downtown Miami locations from the time period. Even more impressive are the recreations of some of the venues where Sam Cooke performs, such as the Copacabana early in the film and on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. In fact, those performances add greatly to one’s appreciation for Odom’s performance as Cooke, as much as the way he handles his philosophical disagreements with Adir’s Malcolm X.
Whenever a filmmaker tackles a period piece, the costumes are going to come into play and Costume Designer Francine Jamison-Tanchuck (The Birth of a Nation) had a lot of work to do. Even though much of the film deals with the four main players over the course of one night and therefore, not requiring a ton of costume changes, there’s all the other supporting and background players in some of the larger set pieces like Clay’s fight against Sonny Liston and the people watching Sam Cooke perform. At a time when how a black man dressed helped set his status, the choice in dress worn by Clay vs. his friends says a lot about them as men.
King’s Makeup and Hair Departments also had their work cut out for them transforming the four main actors into the icons they’re representing, Odom Jr. looking particularly different from how he’s best known for portraying Aaron Burr in Hamilton. Goree may have had a few facial features in common with Clay, but the fact that Makeup Department Co-Head Scott Wheeler is credited with “Prosthetics Designer” and there’s a Dental Prosthetics person (Gary Archer) makes you think that there’s a lot more about turning the actors into the characters they’re playing than just good acting.
It’s impossible to ignore the brilliant editing by Tariq Anwar, his able hand is on view everywhere from the opening Cassius Clay fight to how the conversations between the four men that maintain a respectable clip to never make the film slow down for even a second. Much of the conversations between the friends involves the way they’re perceived by white people, but Anwar’s editing helps Powers’ words and the performances, which King achieves with her cast truly sing.
Likewise, when you have a musician and composer like Terence Blanchard, the long-time Spike Lee collaborator who recently received an Oscar nomination for BlacKkKlansman, you probably don’t have to give him that much direction in terms of creating the right mood for such a momentous occasion as the meeting of these four icons. Music does play an important role in the movie and not just in the Sam Cooke performance, but also some of the records Malcolm X plays for his colleagues during their time together, and even the sound editing work during Clay’s short matches.
One Night in Miami… is a deeply thought-provoking and visually stimulating movie, a true coup by Powers as a screenwriter and nothing short of an absolutely brilliant debut by Ms. King as director. While it might diverge from real historical fact at times, it does a mighty fine job recreating a piece of history that had such a large impact on the four iconic black role models.
One Night in Miami… will debut in select theaters on Christmas Day, December 25, and then be available on Amazon Prime Video starting January 15, 2021.
All photos courtesy of Amazon Studios.