Monday, February 1, 2021

One Night in Miami: Show, Don’t Tell

Leslie Odom Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami (2020).

Kemp Powers adapted the screenplay of One Night in Miami from his stage play, and though he and the director, Regina King, have tried to open it up – especially in the first half hour – it still feels like a play, essentially locked into its motel-room setting even when the camera ventures away from it. I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem: the enforced insularity of the Sidney Lumet movie of Long Day’s Journey into Night enhances the intimacy, and the fact that we don’t leave the house where Cocteau’s Les Parents Terribles takes place helps to escalate the dramatic power of the text (and of the performances). The problem is that One Night in Miami is a bad play.

The night is February 25, 1964, when Muhammad Ali – still at that point known as Cassius Clay and played by Eli Goree – defeats Sonny Liston for the heavyweight crown and returns to celebrate with Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) in Malcolm’s hotel room, with Malcolm’s personal bodyguards standing vigil outside the door. Clay has been receiving spiritual guidance from Malcolm and is on the cusp of joining the Nation of Islam, at the moment when, unbeknownst to Clay, Malcolm himself is in tension with the organization. The night turns out to be less a celebration than an extended argument in which Malcolm takes Brown, who is moving away from football and into movies, and especially Cooke to task for failing to use their talents to contribute to the Civil Rights movement.

The discussion is interesting enough, and it’s not one-sided. But I don’t go to the movies – or the theatre – to hear people debate. One Night in Miami is so didactic it wears you out. By the halfway point I felt I would have given anything if just one of the four men could open his mouth without making a goddamn point. Malcolm’s dialogue, as one might guess, is particularly pointed, so even though Ben-Adir looks wonderful and he gets Malcolm’s particular brand of charismatic intensity, he’s so weighed down by the script that it buries his ability to play a real human being. The other men manage better, though Goree’s role is (weirdly) underwritten. Odom and Hodge, whom I liked in Straight Outta Compton and especially Clemency, are both uncannily precise in their versions of the famous figures they’re playing. And these aren’t mere impersonations; there’s a beating heart inside each of them. Odom provides a reason to see this misbegotten movie; his performance is both excitingly flamboyant and delicately layered, and when he delivers “Chain Gang” and later – sublimely, affectingly – the great “A Change Is Gonna Come,” you can hardly believe it: is there anyone else out there who can actually sing like Sam Cooke? This man is unbelievably talented. And what a year he’s had, moving from recreating his performance as Aaron Burr in the filmed Hamilton to this portrayal.

Regina King has directed some TV but this is her first feature, and though she’s hamstrung by the material, she does show some skill for getting a performance rhythm going. And it’s not really her fault that the opening scene, where a wealthy old Southern cracker (Beau Bridges) entertains Brown on the front porch of his house on St. Simons Island, Georgia, where Brown grew up, is such an embarrassment. We know from the set-up that the old man’s affability and his pride in the accomplishments of the Cleveland Browns fullback will turn out to be a thin veneer over a deep-seated racism. But when Jim offers to help him with a task and the old man, still smiling, explains that he never allows a black man inside his house – using the n-word, natch – any hope you cherished that the writer might know what the hell he’s doing vanishes. Never mind that of course this redneck must allow African Americans in his house as servants; once he hurls a racist expletive at the most famous football player in the country, whom he’s just been fawning over, he becomes simply a straw figure. A dramatist with any smarts would have Brown intuit that the old man is receiving him on the porch because he doesn’t want to socialize with a Black man, even a celebrity he admires, inside his front door. But Powers isn’t a dramatist at all – and that’s what’s wrong with One Night in Miami.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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