One Night in Miami (film) is a fictionalized tale that asks provocative questions. Narrated as a single night’s story, in a room at the Hampton House, Miami, the film explores four prominent figures of the Black American Movement in 1964 and their contribution to the struggle.
Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke gather under the single roof invited by Malcolm X who tries to persuade these public figures to be vocal about the movement and use their art, craft, and voice to support it. Directed by Regina King as her directorial debut, One Night in Miami (film) is based on the stage play of the same name, written by Extraordinary Kemp Powers. His writing does have the flair to move hearts and mountains alike.
One Night in Miami is a complex film. It spreads like a grapevine with so many valuable themes and each one affects its viewers deeply. Before trying to decipher and analyze some important moments/scenes of the film, let’s get a gist of the story.
The film through a series of scenes establishes the prominence of three important men whose contribution is going to affect the civil movement in America.
The first in the lot is Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), later known as Muhammad Ali. In an enthralling scene, Cassius fights against his opponent with a quirky outlook. Cassius losses the game but he wins the audience. He is much likable and loved by his audience. The second person is soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) who performs in front of a white crowd at a nightclub in America and bombs. The audience is not yet ready to accept a black man, no matter how soulful his voice is.
The tone of the scene changes for a bit, as the story introduces its third man, NFL player Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). Jim has returned to his hometown, Georgia, and visits a family friend who happens to be a white person. Jim faces a really humiliating experience due to the color of his skin, the experience which neither Jim nor the viewers of the film could forget.
The fourth one is Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) himself who feels unsafe in the country and plans to move to a Muslim Nation to protect his wife and daughter. But before that, Malcolm has some serious business to attend.
Malcolm persuades Cassius to announce to the public that he is going to be a proper Muslim. His fan following and the title to follow would create an audience and support for their black movement. Cassius does so. Malcolm then invites Cassius, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke and tries to convince Jim and Sam to join him as Muslim and support the movement.
The idea doesn’t go well with Sam who opposes Malcolm, therefore creating a rift between the four men, leading to a point where even Cassius starts to question Malcolm’s motive of persuading Cassius to become a Muslim.
The story further explores their dialogue and a change in their character that would lead to Revolution.
A Masterclass of Dialogues
For most of its part, One Night in Miami (film) is a one-location film. Just Four people talking inside a room, but it is as effective as Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men. Every single line makes a social commentary that is hard to ignore and harder to forget. None of the dialogues are single-layered but heavily coated with multiple subtexts. They are not just literal but mixed in a perfect recipe of humor, wit, and arguments. I would really like to decipher some of the most thought-provoking scenes/dialogues that are still hovering over my mind. Bear with me.
On the rooftop, Malcolm questions Sam why he isn’t using his art of singing as an instrument to fuel the movement. Malcolm says, “Sam, you have possibly one of the most effective beautiful outlets of us all. You are not using it to help the cause brother.” The main pursuit of Malcolm for the night is to persuade Sam like he persuaded Cassius. But Sam is a very hard nut to crack. He won’t let Malcolm play with his mind. Sam gives numerous reasons to defend himself saying that he started a label that gives jobs to numerous black people. His endeavor gives them food, money, and job security. They are not roaming vagabonds like Malcolm, who own nothing.
For the night, the heat between Malcolm and Sam heightens as both men deny to accept others’ arguments. Sam quotes, “being vocal in the struggle is bad for his business.” Malcolm puts an end to the argument with one of the most striking moments of the film, One Night in Miami.
Malcolm tells Sam that he is never going to be loved by those white men whom he is trying to win over. Sam remembers his bombed performance in front of the white crowd in the starting scenes of the film. Sam is silent, a long pause is almost deafening. Malcolm in the nick of time quotes Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind and plays the song on the vinyl record player.
After the song, Malcolm simply tells Sam that Dylan, a white man has nothing to gain from writing a song that speaks more about the struggles of black men. Yet, this song contributes more to the movement than Sam has ever penned down. If being vocal about the movement is bad for business, then Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind won’t be topping the pop charts.
Sam has literally no answer to this final argument. Later, Jim asks Malcolm if his struggle is to prove something to the white men or he really wants to prove something to black men? He further adds that white folks just wait to pat their own back for not being cruel to us. Jim speaks these odd lines based on his own experience in Georgia, a severely striking scene that happens early in the film.
When Jim visits his family friend, Mr. Carlton in Georgia. He was warmly welcomed by Carlton. The white man creates a ladder of praise for Jim who has represented the state in good faith. Georgia and its people will always laud Jim’s contribution. Later Carlton has to move some furniture inside his house. Jim can’t see an old man moving furniture and out of courtesy, he offers help. Carlton amusingly tells Jim, “but you know, we don’t allow niggers in the house.” With a single line, Carlton throws Jim off the cliff, snatching away all the praises he had for him earlier. Though for him the praises were superficial, Jim feels pathetic and embarrassed. He leaves.
Jim, thus, connects this shameful humiliation later in the film when he speaks to Malcolm. He means that no matter what you do in life, the white folks are never going to treat you equally and even if they did, they will take pride in doing so.
At some points, Malcolm’s pursuit to persuade these men to join the movement might seem selfish and overly pressurized. Malcolm’s own approach to the movement was extreme. Many might not agree with Malcolm’s ideology, however, there was one man in the four who summed the whole argument.
In one scene, Muhammad Ali is seated with Sam in the car. He subtly tells him, “We have to be there for each other. Because nobody else understands what it’s like being one of us.” It was a single thought, that led Cassius to transform into Muhammad Ali, and thus representing the movement on a large canvas.
Malcolm calmly tells Sam, “Brother, you could move mountains without lifting a finger.” Hence, he asks Sam to give motive to his art. Sam accused Malcolm to pursue no art or craft himself and Malcolm does realize that he is a man of little talent. But his biggest forte was to persuade the people with gifts to use their talent for the greater good of humanity.
At the end, when Sam sings “A Change Is Gonna Come” on The Tonight Show, tears are unavoidable and a revolution inevitable from thereon. “Change” becomes Sam Cooke’s classic Civil Rights anthem song that inspires many artists in the upcoming future.
Regina King – The Actor who lifted the Film from Behind the Camera
In her debut feature film shines the brightest. The techniques an actor uses for performance are visible on the screen. It is her sheer brilliance as an actor that crafted such an appealing and beautiful film. Each line, complemented by subtle subtext and gesture, hints at Regina’s directorial brilliance. The way she has crafted certain scenes, especially the one in Georgia where Jim is humiliated by a white man, wouldn’t have made such an impact if there wasn’t an actor behind the camera, who knew her art well. The long pauses and the gaps in between lines, all radiate Regina’s mastery. She has done an incredible job. More powers to such actors who amplify the emotions of the scenes, because the actors know the emotions better than anyone else.
One Night in Miami (film) is yet another proof of filmmaking that you don’t need sets, VFX, or stars to create an impacting piece of art. To create a forceful social commentary, to persuade human minds, and excite emotions, one just needs to live life with their eyes open. It was for that matter of fact, why each line written by Kemp Powers hits so hard. He is a writing genius, and Regina King literally complimented it with her direction and knowledge of acting. Her minute detailing of characters like Malcolm’s panic over his new camera and later holding the gun in the same hand symbolizes how society pushes an artist to take up arms. The film is subtly filled with such symbols. All the lead performers have done a marvelous job. After a point, even I failed to perceive that these are actors on screen. They seemed like real Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke to me. Their acting genius is incomparable.
One Night in Miami is one of the best films of 2020, and I hope it shines brighter in the Academy Awards as it shone on screen. Not that awards matter, but an entitlement would persuade more people to watch this film. Like Malcolm said, sometimes a famous public is needed to supplement the struggle. I hope this Good Film gets its share of publicity and thus affect each viewer as it affected me.
One Night in Miami (film) is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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