Greetings from Toronto!
Okay, that is a lie. As I write this I am sitting on a couch in my apartment in Manhattan, a couch I’ve sat on a depressingly large amount of time over the last, oh, six months or so. But, yes, for the last nine years this would be the first day of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Which, professionally, is my favorite day of the year – knowing I have a week ahead of me of watching some of the best movies of the year in a climate that feels a lot like the first day back at college, seeing a lot of familiar faces pass by in the halls on the way to whatever theaters we are all headed to at any given moment.
My first TIFF was in 2011, just a couple weeks after I was hired at Huffington Post. It was my first film festival I ever covered and, being there, really gave me my first feeling of, oh, wow, I’m really doing this job for real. What’s weird is, over the next nine years, that feeling never went away on that first day. I never take this job for granted and knew, each year, it could be my last and that’s why I always soaked up each and every moment of being there. And as it turns out, in 2019 I was right to do so because, now, I’m not there, for reasons that are pretty obvious.
Anyway, yes, this year’s Toronto Film Festival is a hybrid of drive-in outdoor screenings (for people already in Canada, us Americans aren’t really allowed in the country) and virtual online screenings. So, yes, I have to admit, it was a little depressing realizing I had to watch my first big festival movie of the year, Regina King’s excellent One Night in Miami…, at my apartment instead of at the Princess of Wales or Scotiabank (okay, I just made myself sad again thinking about that), but this movie is so good, those forlorn feelings went away rather quickly.
Based on Kemp Powers’ play (he also wrote the screenplay), One Night In Miami… is about the night in 1964 when young Muhammad Ali (who, then, and in the film, was still going by Cassius Clay) beat Sonny Liston to become boxing’s heavyweight champion. What the film depicts is what happened after the fight, as Ali (Eli Goree) went back to his hotel and hung out with Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir, who is also fantastic as President Obama in The Comey Rule) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.). This evening, with these four historical figures, really happened (and here’s Jim Brown talking about that night recently).
It probably doesn’t come as a huge surprise that, since it’s based on a play, there’s a lot of talking in this “imagined” account of what transpired that night. Often in one setting. But the conversations are pretty fascinating as the four men grapple with their own fame and how that translates what they can and should be doing for Black people in America. Most of the tension and drama surrounds Malcolm X, as the other three men all have their own ideas of what they should be doing.
Jim Brown just kind of wants to retire and become a movie star and doesn’t always quite understand why they (all gifted athletes and/or performers) are listening to Malcolm X in the first place. And he certainly thinks Ali changing his name is a bad idea. (Brown retired from football at age 29, which is probably a big reason he’s still alive today. This is not lost on the film, as Ali says he wants to box until he’s way past his prime, which in reality had devastating effects.) Sam Cooke is berated at times for his perceived tendency to want to impress white people (also, at least in this film, Cooke is not a fan of Jackie Wilson). Ali is the most impressed with what Malcolm X has to say, at least until Malcolm reveals he’s leaving the Nation of Islam to start a new organization, which makes Ali feel used and even more tension breaks out.
This is Regina King’s directorial debut. She has an eclectic filmography as an actor that spans from Boyz n the Hood to Jerry Maguire to Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous to her Oscar-winning performance in If Beale Street Could Talk. Look, I’ve never directed a movie, but taking on something like this as a first film at least seems pretty difficult because so much rides on getting performances out of the actors. Without that, the story itself doesn’t hit because the story is from what everyone is saying. Oh, yeah, and add in that the four people being portrayed are four of the most important figures from the 20th century.
But what a debut film it is. She gets just the right amount of tension and angst out of these four actors in a way that still makes it believable they might all still be friends or want to hang out together in the first place. It’s a movie about agendas. Of course, Malcolm X has an agenda for these three famous performers – a particularly tense scene is when one of Malcolm’s security guards tries to tell Jim Brown what to do – but they, too, all have their own agendas. And over the course of the film, they all find out of any of their own personal agendas overlap in any way for a greater purpose.
Here’s the upside of the state of film festivals during the 2020 pandemic. I have no doubt One Night in Miami… would be getting a considerable amount of buzz, even in a normal awards and festival season. This is a movie that doesn’t even have an announced release date yet. And at a normal Toronto Film Festival, it would be competing for that buzz against all the money from the big studios with their slated fall movies. Don’t forget, even something like Joker played at festivals last year. But now, with both a lot of the studio movies either eschewing the festival circuit (like all of Netflix’s movies) or just not being ready yet since productions had to stop back in March, a movie like One Night in Miami… actually, and rightfully, gets center stage.
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