One Night in Miami (King, 2020)

At several moments during Regina King’s One Night in Miami, I found myself thinking the film was working better than I expected. I kept waiting for its rickety structure of dramatic monologues stitched together to collapse, but it never did.

“Worked better than it should” is, of course, a critical cliché, and a pretentious one at that. What I mean by it is that I don’t typically appreciate movies where characters are mouthpieces for socio-political arguments and the plot is largely limited to a single setting. They can come across as a classroom lecture in narrative form. Yet this one didn’t, so what made the difference?

Kemp Powers, who also penned the screenplay for Pixar’s upcoming Soul gives us mostly two hours of Cassisus Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke in a hotel room talking about what it means to be Black. I say “mostly,” because each character is given one scene major scene outside of the insular narrative. Brown discusses football with an affable racist, Clay pushes back on his trainer expressing concern for their financial backers, and Sam Cooke goes on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to sample a new song.

These scenes are in and of themselves minor, and they may seem a bit on-the-nose. Yet they provide important contrast for the discussion among the Black men — who they are and how they speak when they are alone with each other is informed by but separate from the public personae. Clay is younger, surprisingly humble, and deferential to the men he looks up to. Brown is less worried about being physically intimidating and less guarded. Cooke, conversely, is more prickly with his private critics than he can afford to be when working in an industry depends upon his remaining likable. Malcolm has more self-doubts and worries about the loyalty of those in his movement than he can show when in public.

We’ve had films and countless profiles of these men before, so a film like this one has to find the sweet spot between deconstruction and regurgitation. By focusing on a snapshot in time, it does just that. The most important part of the title is that this is “one” night. Humans are complex beings that evolve over time. Consequently, the film doesn’t have to be convincing in every detail, it just has to be plausible. The characters don’t have to exactly mirror the figures we’ve drawn in our minds’ eyes, they only have to be broad sketches of them.

The themes of double-consciousness and hyper-consciousness are not unique to African-American literature, but they are understandably common in the narratives of any oppressed or subjugated group. People in such positions don’t just look out at the world, they also try to stand apart from themselves, constantly checking what they project to the world and how the world reacts to it. That history of double-consciousness could make the film seem voyeuristic, but it largely doesn’t. It’s not as though the film is revealing secrets that the men keep hidden from the rest of the world. Rather it shows facets of the same people that are too often obscured because we only ever see them in one light.

Also, given the trend in contemporary American politics towards radical subjectivity — the insistence that one’s beliefs or fears are real even when they are contrary to external evidence — there is something brave and, yes, I’ll say it, American, about the film. No matter how big a following these men have in sports or music, or politics, they are beholden to explain themselves to one another, to answer challenges, to admit the flaws in their own positions and the truths embedded in the conduct of those they disagree with.

What could have been an awkward collection of caricatures morphs throughout the length of the film into a narrative that surprisingly tells us a lot about celebrities we think we already know and, even more surprisingly, about ourselves,

One Night in Miami was the opening film for Filmfest 919. It arrives in theaters this December.

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