Writer: Kemp Powers

Directors: Regina King

This year’s London Film Festival has been particularly strong for debut movies and Regina King’s One Night in Miami is one of the best. With a screenplay by Kemp Powers based on his own play of the same name, this is a firecracker of a drama as three of the biggest sports and entertainment stars and the preacher Malcolm X debate black identity, activism and the meaning of icons late into the night.

It’s May 1964 and Cassius Clay has just won the heavyweight championship in front of a stunned crowd but instead of a wild party he finds himself in a quiet suite of a modest motel with friends Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke and football star Jim Brown. What happens in that room will set each of them on a new path as rivalries flare, religious differences ignite, and they all face the struggle for true equality.

Powers and King have pulled off a remarkable stage to screen transfer, retaining the intensity of the dialogue between four great men and the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped together in a small room, while also opening-out the play to include a sense of each man’s career and the wider context of Miami on that fateful night. It never feels stagey as Kemp moves her camera around and between the men, forcing them to reckon not only with one another but also with themselves as they question their own contribution to the fight.

There are so many fascinating threads to Powers’ imagined story that deal with Clay’s proposed conversion to Islam that may or may not be driven by Malcolm X for publicity purposes. This provides the motor for a drama that looks at much deeper divisions within the community and uses religion, fame, intellect and even skin tone as ways to separate these men from one another as they each represent seemingly contradictory aspirations.

One of the most intense scenes takes place between Cooke and Malcolm X as the latter accuses the singer of failing to use his platform to advance the cause, wanting to please the “white devils” who dismiss his music at the prestigious Copacabana. But Cooke hits back with examples of songs covered by white artists including the Rolling Stones that generate income for his fellow writers, arguing that this gives him independence and power as a businessman.

Cinematographer Tami Reiker creates some beautiful night shots of a neon-lit Miami while the boxing sequences, though brief, are a stark reminder of the violence that surrounds the men in everyday life. The contrast between the colourful elegance of Sam’s famous hotel and the muted palette of the motel is strongly evinced by production designers Page Buckner and Barry Robison while King makes the most of the rooftop, television studio and car park scenes to create perspective for her characters.

Filled with paranoia and suspicion, Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X is steely and certain, railing against the other characters whose flippancy he seems to find almost distasteful. But Ben-Adir also shows a man anxious for his family, his own status in this room full of stars and the uncertain future he is leading everyone towards.

Leslie Odom Jr is wonderful as Cooke, recreating some of his most famous hits – several of which the BFI smartly play as you take your seat for the in-person screening – before coming to realise how conflicted he feels about his career direction. Aldis Hodge is excellent as mediator Brown who endures his own gasp-inducing moment in the preamble, but tries to find his own direction by refusing to accept Malcolm’s hard line while Eli Goree is a pumped-up Clay, confident of his greatness but with a tender soul to be won by the warring factions.

One Night in Miami is an outstanding and gripping drama that belies its two-hour running time with a debate that morphs and gains in impact as the story unfolds. Kemp may have imagined most of the dialogue spoken here but this wonderful debut and the meaning behind Cooke’s final song will leave a lasting impression.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October

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