Why ‘One Night in Miami’ Has One of the Best Acting Ensembles of 2020

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Photo Source: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

As we look back at 2020, we at Backstage have pinpointed the year’s best big- and small-screen ensemble work for your SAG Awards consideration and beyond. For more voting guides and roundups, we’ve got you covered here.

Main cast: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr.
Casting by: Kimberly Hardin
Directed by: Regina King
Written by: Kemp Powers
Distributed by: Amazon Studios

It’s not often that film-going audiences get the chance to watch powerful, successful Black men commiserating about racism and how it’s affected their careers and their time in the spotlight. Rarer, still, are we witness to such conversations as imagined by a Black screenwriter and directed by a Black, female director. On paper, that’s what makes “One Night in Miami” so significant. And seeing how the final product plays out in this Amazon Studios release does not disappoint. 

Regina King’s feature directorial debut draws Black celebrity icons from the sports world (boxer Cassius Clay, prior to changing his name to Muhammad Ali, and footballer Jim Brown) the music industry (singer-songwriter Sam Cooke), and the U.S. civil rights movement (Malcolm X). The film gets to the rich, human center of these very public figures and examines the threads of the tapestry that held them together as history-making contemporaries and peers. 

Based on the 2013 play by Kemp Powers, the film is set mostly over the course of one evening in February 1964 as the four men celebrate one of Clay’s boxing title wins in a nondescript Florida hotel room. Its big-screen adaptation (also written by Powers) resonates today, as its four players discuss their roles in the civil rights movement and its concurrent cultural unrest. Their debates about Black identity—as it relates to working in majority-white industries, personal and professional responsibility, and navigating discriminatory systems of law and order—prefigure vital conversations from the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement. 

To bring this timely narrative to life, casting director Kimberly Hardin needed a quartet of men who not only physically resembled the figures they’re playing, but who could tap into the essence of who they were—the private underbellies of their public-facing personas. To say that Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X, Eli Goree as Cassius Clay, Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown, and Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke deliver in all respects is an understatement. All four of them explore never-before-excavated depths of vulnerability, bringing a surprising everyman quality to the fore despite the grand weight that rests upon all of their shoulders.

With their character-building approach, Ben-Adir, Goree, Hodge, and Odom invite us to look beyond the fame of these larger-than-life historical figures. They imbue Malcolm, Cassius, Jim, and Sam with a lasting humanity, thoughtfulness, and intellect that headlines, archival footage, and even previous onscreen incarnations have failed to capture. At the end of the day, these are still men chasing their dreams of success in a white man’s world, whose marriages and relationships have highs and lows; they question the existence of God and their purpose on Earth, and they fear for their lives while pushing for the structural change that they deeply believe is right. 

It all works thanks to an airtight script from Powers and seamless, fuss-free direction from King (who won an acting Oscar for Barry Jenkins’ drama “If Beale Street Could Talk,” which also tackles issues of race in a period context). But it’s the central performances that keep you enraptured with what amounts to two hours of lively, engaged conversation that feels as essential as ever.

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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