Format: Streaming video from Amazon Prime on rockin’ flatscreen
The politics of Oscars is very strange indeed. It’s not often that you can legitimately fill a category of nominations from a single film, but One Night in Miami comes very close. While Leslie Odom Jr. was nominated in a supporting role in this film, I think a strong case can be made that all four of the lead actors could have been nominated. At the very least, we should be talking about a nomination for Kingsley Ben-Adir.
One Night in Miami is a filmed version of the play of the same name by Kemp Powers. It is a far more interesting version of the internet meme of Stalin, Freud, Hitler, Tito, and Trotsky all lived in Vienna in 1913 and could have conceivably met at the same bar. In this case, on the night Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) still pre-Muhammad Ali won the heavyweight title over Sonny Liston, he, Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Malcom X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) met up post-fight in a hotel room to talk about life, reality, and the state of Black lives in America in 1964.
The film starts with showing us the struggles these four men are going through. Clay nearly loses to a tomato can in England, Cooke bombs at the Copacabana, Brown discovers that his success has not earned him a pace on his race for many people, and X contemplates leaving the Nation of Islam and what that will bode for him and for his family.
All four are at a crossroads in their lives as well. For Clay, the contemplation of joining the Nation of Islam is coming to an end, and he is starting to realize what that will mean if he publicly declares himself a member. Jim Brown, finding success in a movie has him considering why he’s still sacrificing his body in the NFL. Malcolm X knows that leaving the Nation of Islam will cause him to lose virtually everything, and also considers just how fragile his life is and whether or not he should write his autobiography. Only Cooke seems to be happy where he is, but the relative banality of his lyrics against the struggle of people across the country is starting to get to him.
Naturally, there is going to be some conflict that arises between these men, and it will be a great deal more than some of them wanting to drink when Malcolm X’s religion prevents it. Initially, that conflict is going to be about Sam Cooke’s songs. X has had the same realization that Sam has—that the songs aren’t really that meaningful to people struggling for their lives. Initially, Cooke makes the very clear and relevant point that producing songs for the masses makes Black artists relevant to all audiences. It also provides economic freedom, something that Brown mentions later as being perhaps the most important goal in freeing people from oppression.
The counterargument is “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Bob Dylan’s wildly popular protest song. As much as Cooke wants to play off the fact that songs with meanings don’t bring in money, he is shamed by the fact that Dylan’s song seems to be more about the movement than anything he has done. Clay eventually feels betrayed when he learns that Malcolm is planning on leaving the Nation while recruiting him and potentially using his name and fame to help start his own movement.
It’s rare that we get a movie with four performances this strong. All four of the principle actors give what could well be career performances at this stage in their careers. To be fair, while Ben-Adir is very good as Malcolm X, he’s going to always be unfairly compared with Denzel Washington. Aldis Hodge is partially hampered by his own role. Of the four men on the screen, Brown is the one who could probably most be removed from the story. Eli Goree doesn’t look a lot like Ali, but he certainly sounds like him, and while Will Smith played Ali well, that performance seems less iconic than Washington’s turn as Malcolm X.
If we were going to be limited to a single nomination, Leslie Odom Jr. was the right choice. His Sam Cooke is absolutely the center of a film when, on the surface, he seems like the player here with the least reason to be in the room and the least at stake. Odom gives one of the great performances of the year. He would win in a walk in a year that didn’t have Daniel Kaluuya’s furious performance in it, and I could see talking about him for Best Actor.
If there’s an issue here, it’s a personal one for me. I’ve long been less than excited about films that are clearly just filmed adaptations of stage plays. While the opening scenes of this movie do look much more like a movie, the bulk of the film takes place in one room and is unmistakably a filmed stage play. Yes, I know that’s my hang-up. It is what it is.
Why to watch One Night in Miami: You will not find four better performances.
Why not to watch: It’s very clearly a filmed stage play.