It only takes moments into Regina King’s directorial debut before you realize — like really start to understand — what the term “actor’s director” means. Sure, the two words are pretty self-explanatory, but as soon as each one of One Night In Miami’s four principal cast members deliver their opening lines as the giants of Black history they are portraying (Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke, Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X, Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown, and Eli Goree as Cassius Clay before he became Muhammad Ali) it’s clear how King, an Academy Award-winning actress herself, was able to pull out these staggering award-worthy performances and why she cast this quartet in the first place.
The film, based on a play written by Kemp Powers who also wrote the screenplay, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and is now streaming on Amazon Prime. It’s already getting Oscar buzz and heaps of critical acclaim. Aside from King’s meticulous directing, her casting choices have become a major focus.
One Night In Miami has such an ambitious premise — the fictionalized account of the real-life meeting of music mastermind Cooke, football legend Brown, civil rights hero X, and boxing superstar Clay on the night he beat Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion of the world — you could easily have predicted that Twitter would have something to say about who was playing who.
There are no gimmicky impressions to be found in the film, but King has still been questioned over her decision to hire these particular performers given that two of the four actors portraying these Black American heroes are not, in fact, American. Goree is Canadian, from Halifax, and Ben-Adir is British. While some of the concerns are valid, when you watch the movie, you’ll quickly realize that this mantra will never let you down: in Regina King we trust.
When you watch One Night In Miami, you’ll quickly realize that this mantra will never let you down: in Regina King we trust.
During a TIFF press conference for the film (moderated by yours truly), King spoke about her decision to cast these four actors. For King, it was more about “infusing [their] heart, mind, and soul into these men,” and making sure these actors could portray the four legendary Black icons without caricaturing them. “Everybody knows what these men look like,” she said. “Everybody thinks they know everything there is to know about these four men and that could be a daunting task. Kingsley, Lesley, Eli, and Aldis were all expected to know that we were not doing any impersonations.”
Ben-Adir’s casting has garnered the most discourse since he joins a long line of British actors who have been tasked with playing U.S. civil rights leaders (David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in Harriet, and Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton in the forthcoming Judas and the Black Messiah) and each of these roles have been met with apprehension from some Black American critics. King said she and Ben-Adir discussed his involvement and connection to Malcolm X before filming.
“I just needed to know that I had a great actor and someone who understood the magnitude of who he was going to be playing,” King said. “Kingsley understood that in spades.” In an interview with The Root, Ben-Adir said, “I express[ed] to Regina how much Malcolm meant to me as an individual, how much Malcolm means to the Black community over here and how much Malcolm meant to my granddad and grandmother,” he added. “I just explained the significance of Malcolm to me, personally in my life and how important it was for me to play him. And that wasn’t lost on me.”
The debate over Ben-Adir’s role as X heated up after he gave an interview to the L.A. Times in August and said, “Look, no disrespect to Americans, but America is the center of its own universe — culturally” and went on to hit back at comments made by Samuel L. Jackson about British actors playing roles rooted in the racism ingrained in American history. “What would a brother from America made of that role?” Jackson said of Kaluuya in Get Out. “Some things are universal, but everything ain’t.” Ben-Adir countered, “Jackson doesn’t have a clue what it’s like growing up as a Black man in inner-city London.” His comments riled up the ongoing debate over who gets to play who, and were viewed by many as disrespectful to the American actors who struggle to land work in their own country.
New York-based film critic Rebecca Theodore-Vachron tweeted, “you don’t get to shit on Black American actors/Black American culture and then feel entitled to take up space in the very same culture.” She’s not wrong. Ben-Adir’s comments to the L.A. Times are pretty cringe-inducing considering, as veteran Black American actor Wendell Pierce tweeted about Ben-Adir, “Hollywood producers are huge Anglophiles who assume anything British is better. You are fortunate to reap the benefit of that.” There is something to be said about the preferential treatment British actors seem to get when it comes to certain roles in Hollywood and, as Tonja Renee Stidhum for The Root put it, the “systemic practice based upon white supremacy that further erases and marginalizes Black American talent.” It’s hard to defend Ben-Adir’s willful refusal to check his privilege even though, as a Canadian, I understand his sentiment. Black people outside of the U.S. are victims of systemic racism too, but it’s because of — not in spite of — Black America’s globally dominant culture that their civil rights heroes feel like ours as well. There needed to be more respect behind those initial statements.
Clearly, Ben-Adir needs some media training (One Night In Miami and his stint as Barack Obama in The Comey Rule are his biggest roles to date — he’s most known for playing hot boyfriends in TV shows like High Fidelity and Love Life and a detective in Netflix’s The OA). That said, his competence on screen is undeniable.
Ben-Adir plays Malcolm X with simultaneous simmering fury and impressive restraint that is deserving of the highest recognition. You can feel the exhaustive weight of X’s fight for Black liberation wearing him down; the anxiety trying to seep through his quietly confident exterior is palpable. The story is set in 1964, the year before X was assassinated. The Muslim activist’s rising conflict with the Nation of Islam is in full effect and the urgency of those final days is on display. X is frantically trying to pass on his hopes for Black America onto his fellow influential brothers. Ben-Adir delivers impassioned monologues with harrowing accuracy and nails X’s physicality (his voice and mannerisms) without turning his interpretation of the legend into a parody. Plus, he had the extra pressure of taking on a role made famous by Denzel Thee Washington. That’s not an easy feat. And yes, it helps that he's extremely handsome.
I just needed to know that I had a great actor and someone who understood the magnitude of who he was going to be playing. Kingsley Ben-Adir understood that in spades.
Goree may be a kid from Halifax, but he also takes on the role of Louisville, KY native Mohammad Ali with ease. Will Smith famously played the same role in the 2001 biopic Ali and somehow, Goree is able to outdo that Oscar-nominated performance. “I said [during filming], I don’t want to just put the Ali-isms like the rhythm of his voice and the cadence overtop of Eli.” Goree said at the press conference. “That’s what I’ve seen in other performances and then it becomes an SNL thing.” He excels at the musicality of Ali’s voice, his comedic timing (a scene in which he gets distracted by a mirror and vamps about how “pretty” he is proves to be peak Ali), and his famous gesticulations. But it’s the vulnerability shown in the moments where Clay is doubting his transformation to Mohammed Ali and his faith that Goree is most electric. Since this year’s TIFF press screenings are digital, I was able to yell “Regina!” at my screen from the comfort of my couch at every scene that knocked the wind out of me. Goree as Ali did that a lot.
I’m not the only one giving King the credit for these exceptional portrayals. It’s rare that an ensemble cast doesn’t have a weakest link (Odom Jr. will take your breath away as the flamboyant Sam Cooke and Hodge makes an epic case for being a bigger star by oozing Jim Brown’s calm self-assurance) and with every sentence of the dialogue-heavy film, you find yourself unable to fathom other actors pulling off these characters this well. That consistency can be traced back to King’s directing, according to Ben-Adir.
“We had Regina to guide us,” he said when I asked how he got to the essence of Malcolm X. “So much of this job was being in awe of being directed by Regina King because she’s such an exquisite actor. The trust that that gives you as a performer to let go, it just gave a sense of relaxation. We had room to play and not be scared to make mistakes.”
That trust goes both ways. King believed that each of these actors could pull off this effecting Kemp Powers script about successful Black men and their responsibility to their community — a narrative that is as timeless as it is timely. “While it was through the voices of these legendary men, I felt like I was listening to conversation with just Black men speaking about the Black men’s experiences,” she said. “[They] are portraying iconic human beings from a space no one’s ever seen them before, so what does that look like?” It looks like Hodge, Odom Jr., Goree, and Ben-Adir delivering the performances of their careers in a film that we’re going to be talking about for a long time.
And if you still aren’t down with King’s cast? I’ll give her the last word on that: "I am only five-three, but I will go toe-to-toe with anybody who has anything to say differently," she told the Associated Press. “I stand by these performers and the truth that these brothers expressed through Kemp's words."
This review originally ran in September 2020 out of the Toronto International Film Festival and has been updated.