For the past several years, I’ve attempted to watch as many Oscar-nominated films as possible, and for the past two years I have written reviews of each film and posted them to this blog. Alas, I always run out of time and cannot see everything. This year’ ceremony has been delayed and the nominees are yet to be announced, giving me a chance to get an oxymoronic late jump-start on this year’s anticipated nominees. Today we cover…
One Night in Miami
When Regina King won her best supporting actress Oscar 2 years ago, her film (If Beale Street Could Talk) was the only major-category nominee that I hadn’t managed to see. Doh! To make amends and hopefully avoid repeating such an oversight, I’m starting off the 2021 season with her work. This time King is in the director’s seat, bringing to the screen Kemp Powers’ play of the same name.
This covid year I’m entering the awards season with virtually no prior knowledge about any of the nominees, since I’ve survived the pandemic mostly off of epic TV series binges. One Night in Miami is one of the rare films where I’d at least seen a couple commercials, but otherwise I was entering blind. One of the most obvious thought I had as I was watching was, “This feels like a play.” And turns out I was right! Plays-turned-movies are always a bit of a challenge. How do you take something that’s designed to rely entirely on dialogue and a single setting and make it work in the dynamic medium of film? King and her team took a similar approach to last year’s quiet best picture nominee Two Popes. Indeed, the two films are amazingly similar. Both films took the liberty of imagining and fictionalizing a real-life meeting between famous leaders during a dramatic crossroads in history. Both had leaders with very different views and approaches engaging in sometimes tense, sometimes intimate debate challenging one another’s approaches and actions. And both relied on the same devices to try to keep things from getting stale: flashbacks to more action-dependent situations, beautifully-shot opening scenes in dramatic locations, cutaways to people outside, and a whole ton of just kinda shuffling around within the same location. At times, the blocking inside the room itself felt a bit stilted, giving the strongest impression of a stage play (now stand by bed, now walk to dresser, now face the wall), but it seems to still work because these are the exact moments when we needed to truly focus on the message in the dialogue, without any distracting visuals.
I admit I wasn’t impressed by the beginning of the film. Not having seen the play, I wonder how much of the scenes before we enter the hotel room are from the source material, but it sure feels like it was tacked on for the sake of the movie. We begin by meeting each of our four protagonists (Cassius Clay, Sam Cook, Jim Brown, and Malcolm X) at a low or challenging moment in their life. Clay (later to be known as Muhammad Ali) loses a boxing match in London. Cook bombs onstage at the Copa. Brown visits his super racist hometown. X faces a devastating split from other religious leaders. I couldn’t help but feel that all of these early scenes felt forced. They spelled out too much in the dialogue, and didn’t give the viewers enough credit. When Jim Brown, a gigantic dark-skinned black man, walks up to a plantation house and a white woman with a heavy southern accent answers the door, most modern audiences do, I think, understand the history that makes this scene tense. When she’s excited to meet him, and then her grandfather comes out to greet him and cheer on his accomplishments, we understand why this reaction is unusual and are optimistically suspicious. Then we’re disappointed but thoroughly unsurprised when it turns out this dude’s still hella racist. In this regard, the scene is super effective, and of course is pretty applicable today when we’re strill struggling to address insidious systematic racism. But the weird overt praise heaped upon Brown by the seemingly-sweet old white guy just rang fake and over-the-top to me. Show, don’t tell.
These early concerns were minor, though, and faded away as we settled into the quiet of the film’s true meat: the conversations between our four protagonists. As with every nominee based on true events, I looked into how well the film followed real life. The conversation itself was completely imagined, however the night in question absolutely happened. These 4 guys were friends. They were planning to go party to celebrate the boxing victory but instead sat down in a hotel room for a serious chat. Powers apparently did a fair bit of work to research the attitudes and actions of each of these men at the time and by all accounts did a good job depicting them here. He fudges some with the timeline (for example, Cooke’s song “A Change Is Gonna Come” was already in the works before the night in question, but the movie suggests it only came about later), but most of these changes are forgivable, as the gist of the film is to compare attitudes and approaches, not depict historic events.
The issues discussed by the four proganists are all applicable today. How responsible are we as individuals for the advancement or protection of our community? What counts as selling out? How confrontational should we or shouldn’t we be? What factions exist among people within the same community? What’s truly incredible is considering the current climate and the historic climate and how much tougher these questions would have been to answer back then. Repeatedly throughout the film we hear how much white people are resistant to change, how much they hate black leaders who rock the boat, how they embrace only a warm-fuzzy brand of blackness and achievement that plays within the rules. Today, when we have supposedly evolved as a society, we still see open hostility towards Black Lives Matter from the very society that benefits from the contributions of black individuals. We can cheer for our black football players, but jeer at their protest. We can listen to black music, but only when the messaging stays fun and nonconfontational. This is the situation we are in several decades after the civil rights movement, in a society astronomically more tolerant (er, more like less-intolerant) and integrated than that of the generation before us. We’ve had practice and experience and education and we’re still debating and fighting.
Now imagine having to deal with all these questions in 1963, in a world that was overwhelmingly hostile to the mere idea of black people existing, let alone excelling. And yet, here were 4 men who held unique positions during a unique time. By being some of the most respected and successful black people in the world, with varying degrees of white support or at least acceptance behind them, they could change the world. But how? How does one survive under such pressure and scrutiny? Especially when, as the film makes clear, these guys are all flawed in one way or another. Today I coincidentally finished reading Barack Obama’s most recent memoir A Promised Land, and one thing that strikes me in all of his memoirs is how he has had to grapple with all of these same questions: how to best help his community, how to present himself as more palatable to a prejuced society, how to handle controversies with outspoken religious leaders, etc. How fascinating it would be to see Obama time travel back to this hotel room. It’s been over half a century and yet… I think they’d still have plenty to discuss.
So that’s the main power of the film: the issues it explores. But what about execution? Is it deserving of awards? I dunno. I still think it just works way better as a play. But the performances were all perfect. Leslie Odom Jr as Sam Cooke has generated some awards buzz, and I was equally impressed by Eli Goree as Cassius Clay and Kinglsey Ben-Adir as Malcolm X (both actors I had not heard of before). Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown was good, but his character didn’t really need to do much. Cinematography and production design were all on point. I admit I am terrible at understanding what makes a director good or bad, but I think King can be pretty proud of her film. So I think it’s a solid contender, but the over-reliance on dialogue holds it back from being a best picture winner for me.
NOTE: Nominations haven’t come out yet, so I may or may not update once we know what (if anything) this movie is up for.