Regina King was the talk of last year. First she scooped Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars for her astounding work in Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk. Then there was her no-nonsense turn as leather-clad superhero Sister Night in HBO’s hit miniseries Watchmen.
Now she sets screens alight again, this time from behind the camera. Her impressive directorial feature debut, One Night in Miami, is a searing take on American race relations adapted by Kemp Powers from his celebrated stage play. It packs an almighty punch – albeit one wrapped in a velvet glove. The night in question is February 25 1964. Cassius Clay – not yet Muhammad Ali – has just secured the World Heavyweight title from Sonny Liston and heads to met his spiritual advisor Malcolm X at the Hampton House Motel. The great men are joined by the father of soul music Sam Cooke and Cleveland Browns fullback and soon-to-be-movie star Jim Brown.
It’s a filmmaker’s dream set-up, and the casting is immaculate. Eli Goree (Riverdale) is magnetic as the rippling Clay, a man-mountain impossibly deft on his feet, British newcomer Kingsley Ben-Adir brings a smouldering intensity to Malcolm X, and Aldis Hodge exudes charisma as Brown. But it’s Leslie Odom Jr who just about steals the show as Cooke, thanks to a flashback to an a cappella performance in Boston.
King finds quiet power in this intimate gathering, allowing us a glimpse of the men behind the myths. They tussle with their personal beliefs and the responsibilities of the limited privilege they’ve managed to carve out in a segregated world. Far from stuffy, the filmmaker breathes kinetic life into the set piece, ably assisted by Tami Reiker’s cinematography. The camera dances like Ali as they discuss faith, identity and the future course of the Civil Rights movement.
Folding in the grim inevitability that Cooke and Malcolm X are not long for this world, the spectre of 2020 also hangs heavy. A fleet-footed look at how far we still have to go to honour these men, King’s is a soaring cinematic debut. It’s the kind of movie you walk away from a little numb. Once you’ve slept on, it may just show up like a bruise.
Streaming on Amazon Prime on Jan 15.