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Non-Review Review: One Night in Miami

The past year has seen an interesting resurgence in old fashioned stage-to-screen adaptations.

It is been a common criticism that screen adaptations of classic stage plays tend to be “stagey” rather than traditionally “cinematic.” After all, many plays are written in such a way as to play to the strengths of theatre as a medium, built around core characters delivering monologues on standing sets in an intimate scale. One of the more common criticisms of movies like Doubt is that they fail to fully translate the material so that it is optimised to work in the language of cinema. As a result, quite a few adaptations will try to disguise their theatrical origins.

The cast is great, bar none.

However, this past year has seen a number of high-profile stage performances adapted for film, completely unashamed of their roots. Hamilton was not a conventional cinematic adaptation of the hit musical, but instead a recording of a performance pieced together in such a way as to attempt to recreate the experience of watching the show in a theatre. On Netflix, The Boys in the Band and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom made no effort to disguise their theatrical roots. Even Ryan Murphy’s The Prom embraced the hyperrealism of Broadway.

One Night in Miami is another example of this trend, with playwright Kemp Powers adapting his own play for the screen. Director Regina King never tries to make One Night in Miami seem especially cinematic or epic in scope, instead opting to focus on what made Powers’ play such a success in the first place. One Night in Miami is a piercing and biting snapshot of an ongoing argument in progressive minority circles, powered by sharp dialogue and a set of winning performances. It is perhaps a little too stagey for its own good, but it still works a treat.

Raising the roof…

This minor resurgence in “stagey” theatre-to-film adaptations is interesting. Recent years have seen the much-discussed death of the mid-budget adult-skewing film, as blockbusters colonise the release schedule. The last studio to make an earnest attempt to produce reasonably-budgeted adult content was Fox with its late-in-the-year releases like Widows, Bad Times at the El Royale and Ad Astra. By the time the strategy worked with Ford vs. Ferrari, Fox was already being eaten by Disney and watching its library being consolidated.

In the last decade or so, the “stagey adaptation of a theatrical property” has largely been eclipsed as an awards contender by a new breed of low-budget American indie. Of course, occasionally films like Fences break through, but they tend to be overshadowed by more low-key indie fare like Moonlight or Nomadland. As such, the return of this  kind of Oscar nominee has been a surprise. Indeed, it feels like something of a nostalgia piece, especially given that The Boys in the Band and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom are both based on older plays.

What you got Cooke-in’?

With all that in mind, it’s no surprise that these older prestige pieces are coming through the streaming services: The Boys in the Band and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix and One Night in Miami on Amazon. However, the return of this sort of older style of prestige picture also recalls the return of the earnest “issue” movie that was popular in the nineties, with the deathrow drama getting a slight tweak with Just Mercy and the traditional courtroom drama receiving a slight update with The Trial of the Chicago 7.

What’s interesting about this minor resurgence of old-fashioned stage adaptations is similar to what was interesting about the resurfacing of the old-fashioned issue-driven movie. There is a greater consciousness about the perspectives being included. In particular, the perspectives that were historically excluded from these sorts of productions in the past. After all, Just Mercy interrogates the idea of the death sentence through the prism of racial justice, which was largely absent from nineties meditations on the issue like The Chamber or Dead Man Walking.

X appeal.

More to the point, The Boys in the Band is a play dating back to the sixties. It was even adapted to screen by William Friedkin. However, seeing the play get restaged and rereleased, with a big push from Netflix celebrating a particular run, feels like watching an overdue account get settled. Similarly, August Wilson is one of the great American playwrights, so it is startling that it has taken this long for his major works like Fences or Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to get adapted for the screen.

To be fair, One Night in Miami is a much more recent play, having premiered in 2013. However, the film is set against the tumultuous backdrop of the mid-sixties, and feels very much like a celebration of a history that has long been obscured or overlooked. The movie focuses on a meeting between four hugely influential African American figures whose lives happened to overlap at differing stages of their career.

“Party in the city where the heat is on,
Gonna debate systemic racism ’til the break of dawn.”

Aldis Hodge plays footballer Jim Brown, transitioning into acting in order to better leverage his fame while remaining an outspoken advocate of civil rights. Leslie Odom Jr. plays singer Sam Cooke, who has largely remained silent on civil rights issues while promoting and enriching black artists. Eli Goree plays Cassius Clay, the future world champion boxer whose career is on the ascent and who finds himself faced with a number of character- and career-defining choices. Kingsley Ben-Adir plays Malcolm X, caught in the middle of a leadership struggle for the Nation of Islam.

These are four very distinct figures with four very different (and yet overlapping) perspectives, and One Night in Miami understands the appeal in playing characters off one another. Brown is a more polished and more experienced athlete than Clay, and so one more inured to the inevitable arguments between Malcolm and Cooke. Malcolm believes that equality will only truly be accomplished through confrontation, while Cooke argues for a more subtle and subversive approach to advancing the cause.

A question of Ali-ship.

The debates that simmer through One Night in Miami resonate beyond the movie’s specific setting, reflecting frequent arguments between those advocating for progressive causes. The big heated confrontation between Malcolm and Cooke about which of their approaches is actually accomplishing anything is the kind of argument that frequently plays out over social media about left-wing parties like the British Labour Party or the Democratic Party.

One Night in Miami works in large part because it understands that these arguments are best understood as debates between individuals who share common cause and are pushing in the same direction, even if they disagree over the methods. After all, as Cassius points out, the four men have no choice but “to be there for each other” as four men who share a distinct perspective, all of them being “young, black, righteous, famous, unapologetic.” However heated their arguments might get, they are united.

Browned off.

However, that unity does not erase the important differences between them. These four men might operate at a similar level to one another and aspire for the same things, but they are coming from different places. “You know we are far from the same,” Brown reminds Malcolm at one point, as Malcolm argues that the African American experience is monolithic. Indeed, Brown even wonders who is the intended audience for Malcolm’s rhetoric, and where that comes from. “Malcolm, is it about trying to prove something to black people?”

It is an interesting and nuanced take on a familiar argument, and one that benefits from four well-defined protagonists. Powers’ script is sharp, efficiently delineating the perspectives of the four key players. The cast is uniformally strong, with each of the four lead actors bringing a lot of charisma to their roles. Goree is surprisingly vulnerable as the young man who would later become Muhammed Ali. Odom taps into the same frustration that powered his performance in Hamilton as Cooke. Ben-Adir is by turns steadfast and vulnerable as Malcolm X.

A familiar song.

King never tries to disguise or distract from the stagey nature of the material, which is a canny choice. There’s nothing in One Night in Miami as distracting as George C. Wolff’s attempts to stage distracting long takes swooping through cramped sets in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Instead, King trusts the script and the performers to carry the movie, and works to service both. King shows remarkable confidence and restraint in handling the material, impressive for a director on her first feature film – albeit with a host of television experience.

There’s an endearing warmth and humanism that runs through One Night in Miami, a sense of empathy and compassion for each of its four leads despite their disagreements – and an empathy and compassion that they share for each other. More than that, the film is structured in such a way as to emphasise the way in which the four men influenced each other. There arguments are not adversarial in nature, but persuasive. Cooke might bristle at Malcolm’s criticisms, but he takes them on board. Cassius might question whether his commitment is worth it, but he still commits.

Four your consideration.

This level of nuance distinguishes One Night in Miami from a lot of comparable feel-good dramas about race relations. At one point, Cooke dreams of going to Hollywood because there “ain’t no Green Book tellin’ you where you can and can’t go.” (He doubles down by adding, “They only disasters out there in Hollywood are up there on screen.”) Of course, Cooke is obviously referencing the real-life “green book” for African American travellers, but it plays as a shot across the bow of the trite feel-good Oscar winner, Green Book.

One Night in Miami is perhaps a little too conventionally stagey for its own good, feeling a little too much like a direct adaptation of a stage play rather than working as a movie in its own right. Still, this is a small complaint. Otherwise, it is a night to remember.

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