One Night in Miami: A sobering and relevant film for our times
The film holds a mirror to us to reflect on the caste, class, religious and gender-based oppressions in India, or, for that matter, anywhere else in the world
There’s a long sequence early on in One Night in Miami that introduces us to one of the key characters in the film— American football star Jim Brown.
Brown’s visit to the home of one of his White patrons at St Simons Island lays bare a classic case of benign persecution that the privileged majority often heaps on the disadvantaged. What is galling is that it is not done entirely unwittingly or out of sheer ignorance but often with a sense of fake righteousness, false nobility and exasperating moral superiority. It’s a deeply entrenched sense of discrimination that doesn’t just pass off as normal but as some kind of a benevolent favour. As Brown, at the receiving end of racial inequity, finds himself caught between both recognition and ignominy, one is reminded of the parallel bigotries festering in India.
There is another scene of a news telecast talking of “dissenting negros taking to street corners, church pulpits, sports arenas and ballroom platforms to preach gospel of hate” of the kind that would have set off a federal investigation if it were being done by the “Southern Whites”. A case of the empowered feeling persecuted, in their own heads than for real, something that again rings a bell in our own social context.
Therein lies the power of actor-filmmaker Regina King’s debut feature, One Night in Miami. It is about the tyrannies heaped on the Blacks in America at a certain moment in history but what lends it immense sweep and persuasiveness is the way it transcends the splits of geographies, nationalities and time to strike a contemporary chord.
Not just in the light of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last year, Black Lives Matter movement in general but also in how it holds a mirror to us to reflect on the caste, class, religious and gender-based oppressions in India. Or, for that matter, anywhere else in the world.
The film is a “talkie”, literally speaking. Most of it pivots on just one long conversation between four men in a motel in Miami in 1964. And these are no ordinary men but Black icons—boxer Cassius Clay Jr. aka Muhammad Ali, Nation of Islam leader and human rights activist Malcolm X, singer-songwriter-composer Sam Cooke and Brown.
Based on Kemp Powers’ award-winning play, it is a fictionalised account of what transpires when the four “brothers” get together to celebrate Clay’s win over the heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston. It turns out not so much a celebration or a night-long party so much as a contemplation on what it means to be a Black in America.
It’s a no fuss, no frills narrative; straightforward, classic, vintage. King eschews cinematic flourishes. One Night in Miami feels like watching a play on screen. So, like theatre, much of the power derives from the writing—the character delineation, their relationships and their exchanges—and, of course, the acting that brings the words alive.
These are all insightful and in-depth exchanges that take us to the heart of the Black experience— its highs and lows, the losses and gains, the failures and successes and also the dilemmas and dichotomies, the problems and predicaments within. Moreso because each one of them is at a critical juncture in his life and while each of them has earned fame, name and success, they have still not been able to invest in a discrimination-proof life. It’s a never-ending struggle that they have to live with till the end.
Clay (Eli Goree), disarmingly likeable in his pugnaciousness, flamboyance and swagger as he transitions to Ali, finds White businessmen, who pay for his training getting stung by his association with his “spiritual support” Malcolm X. Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr) is basking in his success and enjoying its many by-products but hasn’t it been achieved by playing to a largely White fan base? Have his songs spoken to and liberated the Blacks?
Brown (Aldis Hodge), a man of few words, is set to fall into a similar trap. Would the Hollywood offer he is so tempted by give a new direction to his sports stardom? Or will it box him another cliché on screen? And above all there is Malcolm X’s (Kingsley Ben-Adir) own pent-up rage that keeps spilling over, even as he contends with dissentions and disintegration and a sense of rot setting within a well-intended organization. Do all the good causes go the same route?
As they play off against each other, support yet question each other, argue and counter-argue, they implicate the audience along as well, forcing us to think and engage deeply, beyond enjoying the film for the drama it offers and the emotions it reaches us out with.
One Night in Miami is a sobering film for the times.
(The author is a film critic and author of ‘Reel India’)