LFF Review | One Night in Miami (2020)

one night in miami regina king kemp powers kingsley ben adir leslie odom jr eli goree aldis hodge amazon oscars

You could move mountains without even lifting a finger.

It almost never matters if these things are true – those oft-repeated tales of icons meeting, shared and shared again until the stories become akin to myths in their own right. That, of course, makes it all the more remarkable that this one really is true.

One Night in Miami finds four such icons together in one place – for much of the night, in one room – each on the cusp of something greater. They’re not quite the figures they’ll become: boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) is yet to take the name Muhammad Ali; Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) is weeks away from leaving the Nation of Islam; athlete Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) is about to retire from the NFL; musician Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) has only recently started his own record label. There’s a sense that One Night in Miami isn’t just taking place in a hotel, but on a precipice – the weight of history is concentrated here, albeit kept largely out of frame for much of the film’s runtime. That’s perhaps One Night in Miami’s most impressive achievement: not all the ways in which it evokes these icons, but all the ways in which it quite pointedly doesn’t. This isn’t a film about four great men of history, it’s a film about four friends, celebrating, arguing, and laughing together.

Indeed, there’s rarely a sense that One Night in Miami is intimidated to tell this story – it very likely wouldn’t work if it was. Instead, there’s a certain grace and poise to how it approaches these men, and an admirable frankness in its depictions of their doubts and insecurities. Undeniably it’s a very affectionate portrayal, marked by an obvious respect – but it’s a respect that doesn’t shy away from finding and appreciating vulnerabilities that icons aren’t typically afforded. Part of this is Kemp Powers’ script; there’s a delicacy and a precision to it, but a certain ruthless efficiency too, not a line wasted in its effort to understand these men.

More crucial, though, are the performances. Kingsley Ben-Adir is perhaps the obvious standout, his mannered affect giving way to warmth and whimsy, fears and anxieties that the cultural memory of Malcolm X often doesn’t allow. (Arguably his is the most difficult role – having to accommodate the greatest weight of audience expectations – but then that’s true of each role in its own way.) That having been said, none of the four leads are shortchanged here – Powers’ screenplay is impressively balanced in its structure, a genuine ensemble piece that gives each actor the opportunity to shine.

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One Night in Miami is also, of course, Regina King’s feature film directorial debut. You wouldn’t guess it; it’s not just a confident debut, but one that makes it look genuinely easy. King’s direction is capable and assured, and she injects a real sense of momentum to the film – One Night in Miami feels very theatrical, its stageplay roots easily noticed, but King translates it to screen well. Again, much like Kemp Powers’ script, what’s most impressive is how comfortable King is in depicting these men – it’s not a stilted, weighty biopic, but instead something quite watchable. In the end, it’s light but not lightweight, earnest but not prosaic, bracing without losing any of its levity; there’s something very charming about this film, and the careful line it so seemingly effortlessly walks.

It’s not hard to see why King might’ve been drawn to this script. At the heart of One Night in Miami is a question about the relationship between art and activism: how each perceives the other, interacts with the other, and ultimately isn’t so different from the other. Some of the film’s best scenes grapple with this idea, what it means to be an entertainer in an unjust world, and how best to use the power granted to an entertainer; Leslie Odom Jr shines during a heated confrontation between Sam Cooke and Malcolm X, a confrontation that is in a sense the real point of the film.

One Night in Miami does not – and, of course, could not – resolve that question. There isn’t an easy answer: not for Ali, Cooke and Brown then, nor for King and her cast today. What’s striking, though, is the film does more than just gesture at these ideas, but genuinely engages with them where it can; it’s a very nuanced and considered piece, more successful than the biopics it’ll be compared to because it’s concerned with ideas and themes beyond strict biographical detail. That does make it, admittedly, all the more noticeable when the script stops short – discussion of “economic freedom” entirely elides Malcolm X’s communism, an omission that quietly speaks volumes about art, activism, and commerce today. 

Nonetheless, though, it’s still an impressive film, and one that’s well worth watching – One Night in Miami is dynamic and lively, and sure to prove memorable for a long time to come. There’s a sense, almost, that King and the four leads are all on a precipice of their own – that this film is the precursor to something bigger for them too, another step on the way to even greater heights. On the strength of One Night in Miami, it’s clear that whatever’s next for them each will be a sight to see.

Related:

London Film Festival 2020 reviews

You can find more of my writing about film here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed this review – or if you didn’t – please consider leaving a tip on ko-fi.

LFF Review | Supernova (2020)

supernova 2020 film review colin firth stanley tucci harry macqueen lake district romance

I want to be remembered for who I was, not who I’m about to become.

In Supernova, Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci), partners for twenty years, travel across England, reuniting with friends and family on their journey. Two years prior, Tusker was diagnosed with early-onset dementia, and in recent months his condition has deteriorated further. Each is trying to prepare the other for the future, albeit with two very different visions of that future in mind: Sam is trying to reassure Tusker that the pair will face things together, but Tusker is trying to prepare Sam for life as a widower. It’s not so much a film about what you’ll do for someone you love as it is what you won’t let them do to themselves: not the problem they’re facing together but the ones they’re so desperately trying to face alone, to keep private, to shield the other from as long as they’re able.

Neither is strictly honest with the other, and a lot of the film is about the things left unsaid – things they can’t quite bring themselves to admit, fears they’ll discuss with someone else but not each other, goodbyes they don’t want to make. So much of their communication has become strained and second-hand; delivered as a speech rather than in conversation, a secret recording found before its time and played in a private moment. It’s not unlike a fading star – words reaching someone too late the same way the light from a star takes years to arrive – and in a sense, that’s almost the real tragedy of it all: after years as best friends and lovers, walls are starting to spring up, imposing a distance between them. It’s not just a case of mourning someone before they’re gone, but losing them – or rather, losing what you were together – before they’ve left. There’s a certain truth to that, how you can be least open with the people closest to you, and it makes the moments where they do talk to each other properly – not just frustrated but shouting, not just sad but weeping, the careful facades finally falling to pieces – all the more heartbreaking.

supernova 2020 film stanley tucci colin firth sam tusker harry macqueen hinterland

Supernova goes to great lengths to foreground Firth and Tucci; they inhabit their roles with the weight of years behind them, gesturing at a lifetime of familiar habits and now-comfortable bickering. They’ve excellent chemistry together, and the film is well-balanced between them; they’re the sort of performances that’d reward repeat viewings, focusing more closely on a different lead each time. (In a sense, Firth and Tucci play two quite similar characters, offering performances underscored by the same notes – both a portrait of a life unravelling – but that serves only to emphasise the different subtleties and nuances each bring.) Neither are playing against type, particularly – arguably that’s part of what makes their characters feel so familiar and lived-in, because in a way they are – but Supernova is still comfortably among their best work.

Harry Macqueen’s direction is simple and understated, all the better to realise his admirably restrained script. There’s a willingness throughout to let those implied decades stand on their own terms – Sam insists he should help Tusker because “it’s his turn”, a simple, even throwaway line that carries so much without the need for more detailed exposition. Supernova offers a glimpse into a life, a close focus on a relationship as it comes to an end, but quite gracefully conveys an understanding of what that relationship was beyond what we see here. That grace is characteristic of how Macqueen approaches Supernova more broadly, too – there’s a careful delicacy to it all, a well-attuned sense of how best to tell this story. It’s never mawkish or overly sentimental; instead, Supernova is quiet in its emotional moments, and all the more affecting for it.

In the end, the film isn’t about raging against the dying of the light – again, like a supernova, what little light is left arrives long after a terminal diagnosis – but about turning resignation into acceptance. There’s something quite striking about the Supernova’s closing moments, and the note of relative ambiguity it ends on; it’s not quite clear what the pair said to each other in their (presumed) last conversation, or whether its final scene is perhaps metaphorical rather than strictly literal. Either way, the pair are ultimately afforded a certain privacy together – it’s not a happy ending, exactly, but it’s a reunion of sorts, and in a way that’s the next best thing.

Related:

London Film Festival 2020 reviews

You can find more of my writing about film here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed this review – or if you didn’t – please consider leaving a tip on ko-fi.