Regina King, who first made a name for herself as a child television actress in the 1980s, has successfully branched out from television to film not only as an actress but as a director. Her 2020 directorial debut, One Night in Miami, is poetic and inspired. The first film directed by a Black woman to be selected in the Venice Film Festival, it is a notable contribution to the pantheon of films about racism.
When it comes to exploring Black power, the handful of serious films are biopic in substance and largely hagiographic in style. These include Malcolm X (1992), Selma (2014), Hidden Figures (2016), Harriet (2019), The Best of Enemies (2019), Judas and the Black Messiah (2021). One Night bravely breaks the mold by calling for reflection and reconsideration. It’s far more interested in how Black power responds to racism, rather than whether, or how, it recounts it. King masterfully builds a visual landscape from Kemp Powers’ blistering screenplay, showing scenes of Whites hazily reflected in mirrors, and of Blacks starkly looking at each other and at themselves.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
The movie dramatizes a real-life 1960s meeting between four Black men who happen to be friends: boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), footballer Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.), and fiery civil rights leader Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). Clay’s star is on the rise, he’s just out-boxed Sonny Liston and become world heavyweight champ.
As his buddies are set to party at a Miami motel, Malcolm X has loftier plans: to leverage them as pop culture icons for “the cause.” Enough meandering and making money—why not use their fame in service of the greater good? He muses about whether Clay should be “boxing” with his gloves off, outside the ring. Why not leverage his conversion to Islam as Muhammad Ali to help the cause?
One scene shows Malcolm X spearheading a real-life hardline counternarrative through his Nation of Islam (NOI). A grainy black-and-white TV shows him delivering an inflammatory speech, as a broadcaster hints that his audience waits excitedly for leaders to call for “the destruction of the White man.” As if on cue, Malcolm X warns Black “sheep” about White “wolves;” later that night he tries to convince his friends.
As it happens, Brown, Clay, and Cooke have ideas of their own. For all his powers of persuasion, Malcolm X can’t get them to buy his regimented vision of their future. But his flawed arguments inspire them to re-imagine theirs. They defy his one-size-fits-all style of resistance, but embrace its spirit—not by cloaking themselves in rhetoric, but by self-examination. They push back on what they see as another form of slavery (religious or not) that spurs Blacks to anger almost as unthinkingly as racism does Whites.
The trio are more inclined to privilege their autonomous humanity. They’ll resist racism on their own terms, though they acknowledge that there’s no justice without empathy. They take turns punching holes in Malcolm X’s grand design: Isn’t it by shining as individuals that we together rise? If we excel alongside the best, Black or White, won’t we eventually be the beacons to Black multitudes you want us to be? Isn’t that more empowering than the tokenism of an adopted religion or performative group photos? All three believe that their economic success will help secure sociopolitical justice and cultural influence.
Of course, One Night’s icons of Black power experience setbacks alongside successes. Everyday racism is alive and kicking, and their fame always rests on thin ice.
Malcolm X, who appears to have the greatest clarity, wrestles with his self-doubt the most over NOI’s growing moral decay. Privately, he seems to realize that his friends are right: Victimhood around identity should never become a religion of convenience. They realize that he has a point, too. Given half a chance, convenience will trounce conviction. And it's conviction, not convenience, that draws Malcolm X away from NOI and Clay toward it.
In interviews King has said that Hollywood typically depicts Black men narrowly. In her view, Powers’ script humanizes them:
We don’t get the opportunity to see Black men like this, and most of us have Black men who are this layered in our lives, who have this much love and strength and vulnerability.
She hopes her “love letter to Black men” shows how it is possible, if not easy, to debate constructively with love and respect, to appreciate (and sometimes adopt) another perspective. And her portrait of these men is as entertaining as it is enlightening. We see them as boys one moment, men the next: fun, fragile and ferocious in turn.
One Night is an introspective ode to Black power that at once applauds its vigor and appraises its fault lines. Its message: Negotiating Black powerlessness with resilience is half the battle, and wielding Black power with responsibility is the other. These protagonists, arguing in a dark tiny motel room, might as well be in an amphitheater speaking directly to the contemporary bearers of Black power: Don’t just revel in your success, as it can be fleeting if there’s no willingness to reflect and revitalize, embodied in Malcolm X’s healthy self-doubt. Question your motives, your methods, your message. Far from weakening you, internal debate and self-reflection may power you on to greater things.
Even if it doesn’t refer explicitly to Black Lives Matter, One Night asks questions with direct relevance to today’s expressions of Black power, by indicting parallel expressions from the 20th century. This bold film holds up a prophetic mirror to today’s Black leaders: As you aim to create a bold new present and future, be sure to learn from the past.
Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on a range of themes related to culture and society. Twitter: @RudolphFernandz
Image: Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree, and Kingsley Ben-Adir in One Night in Miami. (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)
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