It’s February 1964 and Cassius Clay has just won a title bout against Sonny Liston in Miami. Clay is young, boisterous, arrogant, he’s on top of the world, and he just wants to party. As do singer Sam Cooke, also in his prime; Jim Brown, pro athlete contemplating making the move to movies; and Malcolm X, the rising civil rights activist and the Nation of Islam’s most prominent member—only he’s considering leaving the Nation. And in the entertaining, thought provoking, and finally stirring One Night in Miami, these four Black superstars spend the night together in Malcolm X’s hotel “suite” (characterized by Cooke as a dump and a far cry from the Fontainebleau—where Cooke is staying) alternately exchanging confidences, accusations, gestures of affection, and expressions of discontent. Now to be clear, this is a fictional depiction of what happened when these legends got to spend some time together but, as directed by Regina King and written by Kemp Powers (from his play), if this isn’t how it happened, it certainly seems the ‘way it oughtta be.”
There’s plenty to like and admire about One Night in Miami, one thing being that even though this is an adaptation of a play, it doesn’t feel like a “filmed stage play.” The camerawork is fluid, the cinematography and costumes evocative of the era, there has been some “opening up” that doesn’t seem obvious, and the performances achieve a level of naturalness and intimacy that transcend the theatrical origins. The opening sequence that introduces us to the major players is both effective and compact—each segment introducing us not only to the stature of the individuals but their emotional states. Each is considering some sort of change—and Malcolm X is nothing if not quietly relentless in getting them to consider not only their power, but how they have (or have not) used their power to benefit their race. (Malcolm has a hidden agenda too but I’ll let the viewer find that out.) In this telling, the one most profoundly affected (and defensive) is Sam Cooke, who points out that his success (and his employment of other blacks) sets a clear example to his fellow Blacks—however he is conscious of those who have overtly fought for Civil Rights, and regretful that he hasn’t composed an anthem for the cause. The four central actors are pitch-perfect: Kingsley Ben-Adir is a probing, anxious Malcolm X; Eli Goree captures the playful, boisterous, taunting and occasionally innocent Cassius Clay; Aldia Hodge makes a smooth, quietly assured, pensive and pragmatic Jim Brown.; finally, Leslie Odom Jr. is exceptional as Cooke and has both the acting chops to convey Cooke’s inner conflict and the vocal chops to display Cooke’s musical magnetism. And while this may not be history, One Night in Miami works as an insightful look at an era and four prominent figures grappling with the nature and responsibility of power. You can see it on Amazon Prime and it’s well worth your time.
Another Amazon Prime winner (and I’m happy to point this out after having spent so much time around Netflix) is Sylvie’s Love, an earnest and lush throwback to 1950s romantic melodramas (think Douglas Sirk if you will), with a cast of primarily Black actors (led by the winning pairing of Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha) and an affecting love story at the core. Though certain challenging aspects of race are present in this drama, the main obstacles here are the eternal conflict between love and career—and a shift in musical tastes. Tessa Thompson’s Sylvie “works” in her parents’ record store and is engaged to a prosperous Black businessman—nevertheless falls (in a big way) for Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), a talented jazz saxophonist marking time working in the record store while waiting for his big break. When that arrives (in the form of a profitable gig in Paris), everyone has some hard choices and possible sacrifices to make. While some of the plot developments strain credulity at times (and at certain points you just ache for the characters to say the one thing that will alleviate their mutual suffering), the actors are appealing—as with a Douglas Sirk melodrama, you root for these characters to overcome the difficulties presented by changing times and growing self-awareness. There are more than a few magical moments—mainly comprising the couple’s growing love (exemplified by their frustrated attempts to dance together.) Eugene Ashe both wrote and directed, and aided by the gorgeous cinematography, a lilting score (including some Nancy Wilson and Doris Day standards), and a topflight cast, he has created one of the more poignant and romantic dramas in recent memory.