The biopic train shows no signs of slowing down, so I will have to reiterate what I seemingly say every time one of these comes around: the linear, Wikipedia-adjacent biopic is the absolute worst way of telling a story about a famous, important person. It forces someone’s life into a series of bullet points and, in most cases, places a facsimile of the intended character at the centre of a smorgasbord of spinning newspaper headlines and needle-drops. The second-worse way of constructing a biopic is to focus on a specific part of the subject’s life, but to make that part of their life the most iconic, important and easily recognized moment of their lives. There are good movies that have come out of that particular conceit, but for most iconic personalities, this format simply takes the form of a rounding of the bases for people even dimly aware of the subject’s life to nod along in recognition.
I think the best way to explore an iconic character is to put them in a situation that’s unknown to us, or at best apocryphal; I don’t necessarily think you’re going to get a whole hell of a lot out of a movie about Jimi Hendrix being sent back to the 16th century, for example, but it’s preferable to see him in his daily, relatively uneventful life than it is to focus a movie on his experience at Woodstock — a movie that inevitably ends on a freeze frame of him setting his guitar on fire on stage with overlaid text explaining he’s going to die sometime after. I think that if you want to get at the core of why someone important was important, what made them important and what they did with that importance, going over the key moments that gave them that importance is the least of your worries.
With all of that in mind, Regina King’s One Night in Miami does not exactly present as a biopic at first glance. It’s an adaptation of a play by Kemp Powers that fictionalized a night that may never have happened — Feb. 25, 1964, the night of Cassius Clay’s surprise win over the reigning champ, Sonny Liston. Clay (Eli Goree) is invited to a “party” by acquaintance Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) in a hotel room that winds up being more of an intervention of sorts. Malcolm X has also invited football player Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) to the shindig — a shindig that proves to be less celebratory and more of a plea from Malcolm X to enlist the help of three of the most popular and influential Black men in America to his cause.
The gathering has little to do with the bacchanalian one Clay, Brown and Cooke have in mind. Malcolm X doesn’t drink, of course, and there’s no food in the hotel room besides two cartons of vanilla ice cream. There are two of Malcolm X’s guards (Lance Reddick and Christian Magby) parked outside the door and a handful of records – many of which are actually Cooke’s, and as he soon finds out, aren’t there to be enjoyed, per se. What Malcolm X has here is essentially a sales pitch for the Nation of Islam — and what Cooke and Brown don’t know going in is that he has already convinced Cassius Clay to become Muhammad Ali, something he’s going to announce to the press in the next few days.
There are four central figures in One Night in Miami, four figures whose public lives may have intersected but who, in our collective memory, exist as distinct entities. That, in itself, is enough to disqualify it as a biopic in the traditional sense, but the worst aspects of One Night in Miami are very much beholden to hitting various biographical aspects of each protagonist’s life. Although most of it happens in the establishing scenes before all of the protagonists meet, there’s a whole lot of supporting characters coming up to Jim Brown or Sam Cooke and telling them things they already know about their own lives. There’s an aspect to One Night in Miami that assumes (perhaps rightly) that audiences might not really know who Malcolm X or Sam Cooke are, which leads the film down some well-worn biopic paths. A scene in which Malcolm X chastizes Cooke for not writing politically minded songs by snapping his fingers along to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” is particularly slick with the desperation of creating Iconic Biopic Moments; it, of course, forms the foundation for Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
It’s hard not to compare One Night in Miami to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom less for their subject matter (though there’s overlap) and more for the fact that both are adapted from plays and premiered on competing streaming services a month apart. One Night in Miami is ostensibly an even stagier proposition — unlike the film based on the August Wilson play, it doesn’t have musical performances in it — but director Regina King acquits herself remarkably well with the considerable constraints of the text. Where a film like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom makes its stage-bound origins clear in its blocking and use of space, One Night in Miami at least breathes a lot easier. A premise like this one is obviously static to some extent. You can’t set out to make a movie set entirely in a hotel room and assume it won’t feel at least somewhat like a play. But thanks to fluid direction and totally engaging performances from the cast, One Night in Miami manages to escape its theatrical roots.
One Night in Miami also isn’t shy about taking its iconic central figures down a peg. Despite its obvious biopicisms, the film is rather open about how it considers none of these men above reproach. Malcolm X is depicted as an incredible orator and intellectual who also happens to be kind of too “nerdy” and by-the-book for the benefits of his cause. Clay is depicted as charismatic and no-nonsense but also relatively easy to manipulate. There’s no real audience surrogate here, but both Cooke and Brown (who, as the only living member of the quartet, is treated with a little less immortal reverence) trade off as the voices of reason — a reason consistently marred by the appeal of all the things they might lose by adhering to this specific cause. To its credit, One Night in Miami goes much further than I’d expected in its dissection of these untouchable mythical figures. It rarely, if ever, dips its toes into the waters of hagiography.
All of it makes it doubly disappointing, and the whiplash doubly painful, when the film resorts to biopic platitudes and historical name-dropping. I know, deep down, that the unadorned, quasi-abstract movie I expected from One Night in Miami (a Black version of Nicolas Roeg’s Insignificance, which is more or less what this is to begin with) cannot and will not exist. But every time the movie drops some Wikipedia tidbits and has one of the characters painstakingly lay out a biographical fact that everyone involved should, theoretically, be aware of, I winced. There are lots of great things about One Night in Miami, but it also goes to show that the hold of the biopic is even stronger than I’d anticipated. ■
One Night in Miami is available on Amazon Prime Video as of Friday, Jan. 15.
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