‘One Night in Miami’ a standout debut for director King

Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree, and Kingsley Ben-Adir in One Night in Miami / ABKCO Films

“One Night in Miami” is a fictional tale, but the movie is tinged with a lot of truth.

While the movie canvasses the friendship of three stars — singer/producer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), football great Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and new world boxing champion Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), soon to take the name Muhammed Ali — and one political activist — Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) — it also delves into their fears, motivations, personal successes, and failures.

The film is playing in theaters and is also available on Amazon Prime.

That description may sound heavy, but the movie is a joy to watch thanks to Kemp Power’s vital script, whose action mostly takes place in a modest hotel room following Clay’s victory over Sonny Liston, and the deft direction of Regina King.

The movie is an impressive directorial debut for the Oscar and Emmy-winning actress, whose varied career includes projects like “If Beale Street Could Talk” and the HBO series “Watchmen.”

Leslie Odom Jr. as singer/producer Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami / ABKCO Films

King and her ensemble bring to life Kemp’s screenplay in the best way. You feel like a fly on the wall, listening the conversations of these four friends, who are at the very top of their chosen careers but live in a world where they all function as second-class citizen because of their skin tone.

King and Kemp truly capture the camaraderie and rivalry that men enjoy as friends, showing both the love and at times resentment close friendships can bring. As fictionalized as the account is, the movie still rings with truth thanks to the performances of the four co-stars.

Ben-Adir as Malcom X brings an anxious humanity to his role as the conscious of the group. He and Odom Jr.’s Cooke rub each other wrong because they draw out each other’s flaws. Though he’s the youngest of the quartet, Goree’s Clay is the peacemaker, with Hodge’s Brown playing the role of the realist and protector.

All four of the performers are strong in their roles, but Goree’s Ali is particularly engaging as the friend that binds the group together.

The movie’s central conflict stems from Cooke’s feeling that Malcolm X’s methods are too extreme, and Malcolm’s belief that Cooke’s talents could be used to promote more substance.

Malcolm challenges Cooke by playing him Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind,” and asking him why he hasn’t used his song-writing skills to craft tunes with as much substance.

Cooke then explains how he uses his business acumen to lift not only himself but other artists around him in the white man’s world.

Eli Goree as Muhammed Ali in One Night in Miami / ABKCO Films

Interestingly enough, in reality both Cooke and Malcom X were violently killed within a year of when this movie is set.

Clay, of course, went on to become Ali and have one of the most storied boxing careers in history. He also took a stand, gave up the title, and went to jail after refusing to serve in the military during the Vietnam War because of his religious beliefs.

Brown, who is 84 and the only one of the quartet of stars still living, went on to a movie career and a personal life defined by his physical and monetary struggles with women, but he remains regarded as one of the best running backs ever 55 years after he played his final game in 1965.

The most compelling movies draw you into film, activating your imagination in a way that almost makes you feel like you are part of the story.

For me, King accomplished that with this movie. I can’t think of a better new film that I’ve seen in the past year.

(R) 1 hr. 54 min.
Grade: A

This Week in Theaters

  • About Hope(PG) 1 hr. 31 min. (watch trailer)
    Playing at: Malco Razorback
  • Our Friend(R) 2 hr. 6 min. (watch trailer)
    Playing at: Malco Razorback, Rogers Towne, Skylight

Classic Corner – The Night of the Hunter

Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters in The Night of the Hunter / United Artists

Pardon the pun, but “The Night of the Hunter,” which airs at 9 p.m. Saturday on Turner Classic Movies, plays like a grim fairy tale of sorts, told to keep kiddies on the straight and narrow.

While director Charles Laughton staged and shot the film dreamily and told his story simply like a dark fairy tale, the film’s subject matter is decidedly adult, dealing with theft, implied sexual misconduct, and murder.

Laughton studied great silent films in preparation for filming the movie that drips with atmosphere and dread. While Laughton was a silver-screen star and director of many Broadway plays, “The Night of the Hunter” is the only film he helmed.

That’s too bad, too. The film is a lyrical, creepy delight that no doubt influenced directors as varied as Robert Altman and Tim Burton.

The plot focuses on a wicked minister the Rev. Harry Powell, played ominously by Robert Mitchum. Powell is a preacher up to no good, who moonlights in murdering unsuspecting young women after seducing them with his laconic charm.

Mitchum is frightening yet magnetic as the corrupt preacher that in some ways is a precursor to the evil charm Anthony Hopkins injected in his role of Hannibal Lector in 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs.” Both characters wreak of danger, but hold a tantalizing allure that charms the naive prey into their web.

Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter / United Artists

Mitchum’s vile portrayal of the preacher Powell, who has “love” tattooed letter by letter on the fingers of his right fist and “hate “in the same manner on his left, may seem a bit over-the-top through a modern lens, but he’s far creepier and more realistic than the modern slashers who haunt more recent horror films.

Powell doesn’t mind murder, but he’s in it for the money — $10,000 to be exact. It’s the money his cell-mate hid on his farm before being sentenced to death. Powell plays the long game in going after the money, seducing and marrying his cell-mate’s old wife, Willa, played by Shelly Winters.

While Powell dupes Willa, her children John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Harper) can’t be fooled. I guess they’re too innocent to be sucked in by someone so evil. They know where their dad hid the money prior to his execution, but aren’t about to give it up.

Not to give too much away, but things turn for the worse for Willa, and John and Pearl take refuge with an elderly woman named Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), who looks after children. That sets up a Christmas-time showdown between Powell and the kids, old lady Cooper and her shotgun that has to be seen to be believed.

The movie itself is excellent, but for film fans, it’s a must-watch for all the movie it has influenced since, including classics like “Psycho,” both the 1962 and 1991 versions of “Cape Fear,” “Halloween,” “What Lies Beneath,” and many others.