Film & Television

Regina King’s Powerful Directorial Debut: ‘One Night in Miami’

When the Golden Globe Award nominations were announced two weeks ago, something extraordinary happened. For the first time in the competition’s 77-year history, there were multiple women nominated as Best Director. In fact, the majority, three out of five, of the directors honored were women. The event becomes even more exceptional when considered in light of the fact that only five women have ever been nominated in the category: Ava Duvernay for Selma, Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation, Jane Campion for The Piano, and Barbra Streisand and Kathryn Bigelow, each nominated twice, for Yentl and Prince of Tides (Streisand), and The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow).

Streisand is the only woman to ever win, in 1984 for Yentl.

But, that may very well change this year.

Emerald Fennell is nominated for her #MeToo revenge fantasy Promising Young Woman. Chloé Zhao is nominated for her economic survivalist drama Nomadland. And Regina King is nominated for One Night in Miami. King has already won a Golden Globe, an Oscar, and multiple Emmys, but all of them for her celebrated work as an actor. One Night in Miami is her feature film directorial debut.

One Night in Miami is based on the 2013 stage play by Kemp Powers. It imagines an evening with four iconic Black figures: Cassius Clay, Malcom X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke. In real life, the four friends were together to celebrate Clay’s winning the heavyweight championship title. Powers has brilliantly filled in the blanks of what may have transpired in the Hampton House, a Green Book-listed motel where they gathered, under the protection (and possible surveillance) of Nation of Islam guards. King has brilliantly brought it to the screen.

The bulk of the film takes place in that fraternal motel room. But King and Powers (who adapted the screenplay) wisely include establishing scenes for each of the characters, giving us insight into their struggles as renowned and successful Black men in 1964. Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and his wife are preparing to break from the Nation of Islam, understanding that it will mean financial hardship and potentially real danger. Clay (Eli Goree), already a showman at 22, is bristling at the demands made by his white investors. Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) has just performed at the Copacabana, where a significant portion of his all-white audience got up and left when he took the stage. (In response to his rendition of “Tammy,” a woman sighs, “I liked it better when Debbie Reynolds sang it.”) And, perhaps most haunting of all, NFL star Brown (Aldis Hodge) has visited his birthplace, St. Simon, Georgia, where he’s welcomed by a football fan and local plantation owner with a cool glass of lemonade and a shockingly matter-of-fact racial slur.

On February 25, against the odds, Clay defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title. Malcolm X and Cooke were in the audience. Brown was providing commentary ringside.

Thanks to his Ferrari, as well as his mercurial impatience, Cooke is the first to arrive at the motel, which he deems “a dump,” comparing it to the Fontainebleau, where he and his wife are staying. (We later learn that his white manager had to make the reservation.) The others soon arrive together. Cooke, Clay, and Brown are expecting a party, but Malcolm doesn’t deliver. There are no girls and there’s no booze. A devout Muslim and vocal civil rights activist, he’s hoping for a more serious — more celibate and sober — evening of thoughtful reflection. 

Unbeknownst to Cooke and Brown, Clay plans to announce his conversion to Islam, changing his name to Cassius X (he became Muhammad Ali a month later). The men argue about how best to serve the Black community. Malcolm, clearly concerned about his own future (he would be assassinated less than a year later), urges Cooke to “use his voice.” Cooke (who would also be killed within the year) makes a compelling case for beating the white system at its own game. He explains that as a producer, he recently sold the rights to a Black songwriter’s tune to a British group that called itself The Rolling Stones. The songwriter was angry, but only for six months, until his royalty check arrived. “If I win ’em over playing our music, I’m knocking down doors for everybody,” Cooke insists. “Everybody talks about they want a piece of the pie, well I don’t! I want the god damn recipe.”

Malcolm X plays a couple of Cooke’s smooth hits on the phonograph, like “You Send Me” and “For Sentimental Reasons.” Then he puts on Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Why, he asks, doesn’t Cooke use his God-given talent to write something as important as “this white boy from Minnesota did?”

Watching Ben-Adir and Odom Jr. duel, both from legitimate positions and both with articulate and impassioned verbal weapons, is one of the film’s most powerful sequences. Odom Jr., whose singing voice adds another layer of both beauty and pathos to the story, is also nominated for a Golden Globe. But really, the entire cast is stellar. It’s a challenge to play (or direct) such iconic historic characters; often, actors are hailed for what really amounts to uncanny impersonations. But in this case, each of King’s actors finds enough nuances of the real-life person to pull us in while delivering a whole and deeply human performance. 

Blessed with an actor’s equivalent of Ali’s magnificent physique (“How’d I get so pretty?” he marvels, looking into the hotel’s mirror), Goree switches off between the arrogance of a champion and the glee of a still very young man. At one point, he literally jumps on Malcolm’s bed. 

Hodge’s Brown seems more resigned and philosophical about his situation than the other three. He admires Malcolm, but won’t become a Muslim himself. “You never tasted my grandma’s pork pie,” he jokes. At one point, he advises Clay not to be so defensive. “We’re all just gladiators, Cass, with our ruler sitting up there in the box.” Brown’s on the brink of leaving the NFL (to date, many still consider him one of football’s all-time greatest players for the nine years he was a running back for the Cleveland Browns) to pursue a film career. Three years later, he would star in The Dirty Dozen.

After the argument, Cooke needs to cool off, so he and Clay drive to a local liquor store, where they’re immediately approached by young fans. Clay urges Cooke to leave his issues with Malcolm behind, “We have to be there for each other,” he asserts. “Because can’t nobody else understand what it’s like being one of us. You know, young, Black, righteous, famous, unapologetic.”

King might argue that there haven’t been enough films made about them either. In an interview with BuzzFeed, she explained what drew her to the project, “Kemp Powers’ words. I mean, the dialogue was powerful — and to know that I could potentially have the opportunity to tell a story that really is a reflection of the men that I know and love, that are in my life, that are complex and that are vulnerable. Vulnerability is what makes them strong. They’re not cyborgs — they have fears and they actually do have emotions. I think most of the Black men in our lives are like that and we don’t get to see that represented that often, so that was really one of the things that attracted me to it … This is a bromance, if you will. It’s very much a love story, just not the conventional love story that usually comes to mind when you say, ‘love story.’”

In 2019, when King received the Golden Globe for her supporting role in If Beale Street Could Talk, she vowed (and challenged the rest of Hollywood) to use women for half of her production teams on future projects. She admits that she was unable to for this film.  

“I guess I was calling myself to action,” she remembers, “and I think that it did inspire a lot of other productions to try to achieve the same thing. I knew it was going to be difficult, and we weren’t able to accomplish that with One Night in Miami, but what we were able to achieve, which I’m equally proud of, is we were able to achieve diversity numbers that I’ve never experienced on a project before. Our crew was predominantly made up of people of color who do not identify as cis-white males … Unfortunately, we were shooting in New Orleans and there just weren’t that many women available. Plus, there were several productions going on at that time. When you’re working in certain cities getting the tax credits, that means you have to use people that work in those cities to get the tax credit. We just found ourselves — we ran out of people. So what that says to me is that we do have to do more, as far as creating opportunities in the pipeline, to bring women into our industry so that the list doesn’t run out.”

King remains dedicated and encouraged. “It’s really on us to create those apprenticeships, create that pipeline. The more we continue to talk about it, the more those types of programs will be established.”

One Night in Miami is available on Netflix.


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