"One Night in Miami" a strong directorial debut for Regina King

Leslie Odom Jr. appears in a scene from “One Night in Miami.”

Academy Award-winning actress Regina King makes a successful transition from in front of the camera to behind it with “One Night in Miami.”

King’s directorial debut, a stirring drama with a powerful ensemble, uses four voices from the 1960s to deliver a message of civil rights and racial relations that is just as relevant today.

“One Night in Miami” tells the fictional account of a meeting between Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) in a Miami hotel after Clay’s heavyweight title win over Sonny Liston on Feb. 25, 1964.

What begins as a celebration of Clay’s victory soon transforms into discussions on what these four men are doing with their celebrity platforms and how they are doing their part to advance the civil rights era discussions.

The film is based on a play of the same name, but King does a really good job of expanding the story beyond the hotel room. The first half of the film provides a sense of who these men are and why they were looked at as leaders during this time. The four leads are all outstanding in their respective roles, giving performances that are unique but also complimentary to their co-stars.

Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X is very reflective in a way that we haven’t seen on film. Hodge brings the physical presence and quiet intensity to Brown, while Goree makes for a much better Clay than Will Smith in the Muhammad Ali bio picture from the late 1990s.

As good as the other three men are, Odom Jr. is the true standout in the film. Odom captures Cooke’s larger-than-life persona both on stage and off, creating a man struggling with his stardom in an era when racial tensions were heightened. It’s the kind of role that (deservedly) garners awards considerations.

It takes a really good director with a keen sense of pacing to allow these four dynamic performances room to shine, which is what King does.

King keeps it simple for the most part in her directorial debut, and she lets her actors do the heavy lifting. The result is a film that packs a pretty emotional punch and signals the arrival of King not just as an outstanding actress, but an outstanding filmmaker as well.

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