Thank goodness for Regina King.
For decades now, from 1996’s Jerry Maguire (my official introduction), to the Legally Blonde and Miss Congeniality sequels, to TV’s 24 and HBO’s The Leftovers, I’ve appreciated the style and the power with which the actress has refined her craft and blazed her trail. Her work on the American Crime anthology franchise made everyone take notice (worth a revisit these days…), and then came Watchmen. King has done it all – and gotten only better (and hotter) along the way. She is #QueenRegina – but it hasn’t all been Emmys and Oscars and stans. King spent the lot of the past decade earning her stripes as a helmer of numerous hours of episodic television on network and across basic and premium cable, from Scandal to Insecure and Greenleaf. This week, she adds another title to her résumé with the premiere of One Night in Miami…, her debut as a feature-film director, on Amazon Prime Video. King has always shone, and now her first film is a veritable movie event.
One Night in Miami… zeroes in on the night of Feb. 15, 1964, and offers us an imagined peek at a celebration at the Hampton House Motel and Villas, where four friends convened (because they couldn’t at, say, the Fountainebleau in Miami Beach), to raise a toast to one of their own, underdog boxer Cassius Clay, who pulled one of the biggest upsets in boxing history, when he defeated heavyweight champ Sonny Liston at the Miami Convention Hall earlier in the evening. Malcolm X is there, as is Cleveland Browns fullback Jim Brown, and singer Sam Cooke.
Just four friends, shooting the breeze out in the Magic City.
Except these were no mere men. These were four extraordinary Black men, each of whom arrived at this party at a crucial moment in his personal and ultimately iconographical trajectory to become legend.
King’s vibrant, immersive film was adapted for the silver screen, based on his own eponymous 2013 play, by another multi-hyphenate, the playwright Kemp Powers, who is himself having a buzzy banner year as the first African-American to helm an animated Disney production (i.e., Disney+’s Soul). Needless to say, there is a richness of character, of historical texture, to this film all the other other big-screen offerings we’ve had to enjoy at home thanks to COVID-19 wish, and the scope of it all makes the leap from stage to screen with agility and elegance. I never knew much beyond the image of Malcom X (never caught Denzel Washington’s film; still haven’t), to say nothing of Brown or Cooke, really, but I was aware of the leader of the Nation of Islam, and I knew there was a singer named Sam Cooke. And, of course, I knew about Muhammad Ali…but not much about Cassius Clay. Can’t say now I know so much more about what these men did for the country and the culture, but I have a better sense for who they might have been, for the lives they might have led, for their hopes and dreams.
All of 22, Clay, played by Eli Goree, is too cocky for school, yet there’s no denying he’s coming into his greatness. Looking to break through, Sam (Leslie Odom Jr.) is a Black man singing in a white businessman’s world, struggling to hang onto himself, to his identity, and make it happen. James Nathaniel (Aldis Hodge) is striving to make peace with some of the good (quote-unquote) people in his life and keeping an eye on life after the NFL (before O.J. went Hollywood, Jim Brown went Hollywood). And Brother X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) is conflicted, torn between his allegiance to his home and his wife and his duty to his destiny (FBI tails and all).
Magical in the possibility of its realism, One Night in Miami… reflects a turning point for these icons, and it does what so many mainstream films so seldom do: It treats us to the story of four Black men living, fully, loudly, proudly. And it becomes an instant essential building block in our re-education and re-appreciation of our shared American culture.
By showing us how Cassius might have broken the news to Jim and Sam that he was planning on joining the Nation of Islam…how Jim was kinda the Shoshanna of the group…how Malcolm could have forgotten himself and gone after his friend, Sam, and – gasp! – his music in the thick of an argument, King & Co. remind us these men were only human…and that the legacy continues.
Life goes on. It went on for these four friends. And humanity’s all the better for it, too, for they lived.