It’s a very different kind of year when we get to 15th January and I’ve still not seen any new film releases. 15TH JANUARY! I’d been to the cinema three times by this time twelve months ago. Of course then we hadn’t quite know what those months would look like but now we are only too aware and with cinemas closed again, or for some people in the world still closed, and with big movies being delayed again (No Time to Die has just had its date moved a third time, moving from April to November) it is difficult to be fully optimistic about the cinematic year ahead.
Actually though, while it may yet be some months until it starts, with many of 2020’s films being delayed it could end up being a bumper year. Also the streaming services are really coming into their own and having had little for the first two weeks suddenly this week we’ve got new arty robot film Archive, stylish animation Away, action movie Outside the Wire, Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska Western Damsel (which with that title is bound to be fascinating from a feminist point of view, one way or another), a new adaptation of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit and this film One Night in Miami.
Pieces of a Woman did hit Netflix last week but knowing the subject I’ve not brought myself to watch it yet. Again, this purporting to be a feminist blog, that title demands I do. As it is though, the Not Left Handed Either Film Guide, which includes a regular section called The Ripley Factor looking at representations of women in film, is starting 2021 with a movie that barely has any women in it at all. What it has got is four men meeting up in a hotel the night after one of them has had the defining moment of his career; those four men being Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, NLF star/actor Jim Brown and king of soul Sam Cooke.
Written by Kemp Powers from his own play, One Night in Miami posits what may have been discussed between these four friends who really did meet up the night of Ali’s championship win against Sonny Liston, 25th February 1964. Initially debuting on stage seven years ago, the film comes at a good time. Interestingly the Black Lives Matter movement was also born in 2013 but it has just had a significant year and Black cinema is also at the front of many new minds with the recent releases of Queen & Slim, Just Mercy, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the five Small Axe films, Da 5 Bloods and Soul (co-directed by Powers) and due to the sad loss of Chadwick Boseman. It is probably worth mentioning in terms of mainstream media, that Star Trek has also just put a black women in the Captain’s chair for the first time in a show Discovery, that Kemp Powers was also heavily involved in.
What the best of these movies all do, like the recent demonstrations around the death of George Floyd, is really highlight the experience of being black in contemporary society, even if some of them are set decades ago. One Night in Miami explores the motivations of these four famous and influential men, and in doing so examines the responsibilities they felt in using their popularity for the good of civil rights. Catching Cassius Clay the night he announced his name change, Malcolm X as he prepares to leave The Nation of Islam and Sam Cooke as he starts to record songs about more than just romantic love, it explores the duties and risks around their differing stances; stand points that within a year had got one, or possibly two, of them killed. (Cooke was shot by the female manager of a hotel he was staying in, in what was legally recorded as self defence but some believe was politically motivated.)
One Night in Miami never quite gets away from its theatrical roots, despite the usual efforts to throw things a little wider most of the action still takes place in one room, but the conversation feels both important and natural and the performances are all strong.
The Ripley Factor:
Okay, so the film does not come even close to passing the Bechdel test; the only women briefly in it are Mrs Cooke and Mrs X. Wait though because unusually (16%) there is a women behind the camera. One Night in Miami is the directorial debut of actor Regina King who was brilliant to Emmy winning form in the excellent Watchmen and to Oscar winning form in the astonishing If Beale Street Could Talk. I wouldn’t be surprised if she gets awards attention for this too. It isn’t ground breaking but it is solid and in places things are shot differently, possibly because she is a woman. Tempers do rise with emotions as the men debate the issues but at no point is there any aggression or posturing in the way they deal with one another. Not even with one of them being among history’s greatest fighters (although paradoxically he was also one of history’s greatest pacifist). From the opening boxing scenes you know you are watching something similar but with a different approach and this follows through the rest of the movie.