Regina King’s feature-film directorial debut, One Night in Miami . . . (2020), persuasively envisions an astonishing true-life convergence of Black heroes at a portentous mid-twentieth-century juncture in American life. In doing so, the movie brings forth its own array of astonishments, not the least of which is how impeccably it fine-tunes boldness and delicacy in rendering its time, its place, and its four complex protagonists, whether in tandem or in solitude. To Kemp Powers’s stage play, which he adapted and craftily expanded for the screen, King brings the diligent empathy of an accomplished actor as well as an agile, solicitous eye for color and light, an ear for dialogue alert to subtlety and hidden emotion, and a moral urgency pressed by the imperatives of ongoing injustices to find the best uses of the past to interrogate the present.
JIM BROWN: This is one strange fuckin’ night!
Was it really? History is mute on many specifics of what went down at the Hampton House Motel in Miami on the night of February 25, 1964, hours after Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. “shook up the world” a few dozen blocks away by seizing the world’s heavyweight boxing championship from imposing, glowering, forbidding Sonny Liston. All that’s known for certain is that the fresh (in more ways than one) new champion got together at that predominantly Black motel that same evening to celebrate his win with Jim Brown, the nonpareil professional football player of his era; Sam Cooke, the rhythm-and-blues recording idol and emerging music mogul; and Malcolm X, the acerbic, inflammatory voice of the Nation of Islam, who was at that time mentoring Clay toward his reinvention as a Black Muslim named Muhammad Ali.
But Powers—a journalist and memoirist before becoming a playwright and scriptwriter for television (Star Trek: Discovery) and cinema (Soul)—believed that just the sheer fact of this meeting taking place when it did rippled with dramatic possibilities, given the context of what was already an earthshaking time for America. The country was still reeling three months after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, as the civil rights movement pushed on through its own recent brushes with cold-blooded murder: the shooting death of Mississippi NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers and the bombing of an Alabama church that killed four Black girls had bookended a summer of 1963 highlighted by the March on Washington. Combine all that with the galvanic arrival in America that same February of 1964 of the Beatles, whose photo op in Miami with Cassius Clay a week before his big fight is alluded to in Powers’s script (“Sissies,” Clay called them, more out of bemusement than ridicule), and you have the perfect storm of unbridled possibility and unnerving momentum.
“Regina King exalts the movie’s principals as cultural and political role models, but not to the point of overlooking their humanity.”
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