Four famed Black heroes gather in riveting ‘One Night in Miami’

‘Some Kind of Heaven’ digs into life at a huge Florida senior community

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In February 1964, as the civil-rights movement was intensifying, four extraordinary African-Americans — Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown —gathered in a Florida motel room to celebrate Clay’s world heavyweight championship victory. “One Night in Miami” exhilaratingly imagines what might have transpired during that gathering.

Streaming on Amazon Prime starting Friday, the movie is the directorial feature debut of actress-filmmaker Regina King and is written by Kemp Powers, adapting his stage play.

Smartly opening up the play, King introduces the protagonists in prologues that reveal personal challenges, turning points and struggles with racism.

Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), the Muslim minister and civil-rights activist, is preparing to leave the Nation of Islam and launch his own organization. He’s nervous about it.

Clay is preparing for his big fight with reigning world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston and, under the guidance of Malcolm X, is converting to Islam.

Brown (Aldis Hodge), the football star, has begun acting in Hollywood movies.

Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), “King of Soul,” is selling records galore, but white audiences at prestigious music clubs avoid his shows.

The primary action occurs at Miami’s Hampton House Motel, where following Clay’s defeat of Liston, the four men get together to celebrate.

To the disappointment of Cooke and Brown, who want to party — vanilla ice cream, courtesy of the devout Malcolm, becomes a running joke — Malcolm intends for the meeting to consist of serious discussion. He wants the men to ask themselves how they, as Black celebrities, can help bring about social and political change and benefit the black community and the civil-rights movement.

The debate begins amiably and changes tone throughout the evening, occasionally becoming confrontational.

Tension rises when Malcolm accuses Cooke of creating soft and sellout music and compares Cooke’s records, unfavorably, with the protest songs of a white artist — Bob Dylan. Cooke counters the criticism by noting that his music-publishing enterprise earns Black artists hefty sums.

As the debate continues, viewers sometimes may feel as if they’re watching a filmed play — a common problem when stage shows are adapted for the screen.

But King effectly reduces that frustration by moving her characters outdoors for a bit and adding a striking Cooke concert flashback. The prologues include a stunner: Brown’s conversation with a seemingly friendly Georgia neighbor (Beau Bridges) who ends their conversation with a shocking display of ingrained hatred.

King additionally keeps the energy flowing and, an actor herself, inspires multifaceted, vital performances from her cast.

Ben-Adir isn’t the first actor to play Malcolm X, but he brings him to life with impressive credibility and complexity. Especially notable is the actor’s portrayal of Malcolm’s down-to-earth and even jokey qualities.

Goree’s Clay, with grace and audacity, suggests his future self, Muhammad Ali, in the making. Clay amusingly remarks on how pretty his face is, in a mirror scene.

Odom’s Cooke, conveying unease beneath his silky surfaces, and Hodge’s Brown, combining athleticism with introspection, also are top-rate.

King juggles many elements in the movie and drops none. “One Night in Miami” is a blast of momentous social history and a stimulating watch.

REVIEW

One Night in Miami

★★★1/2

Starring: Kinglsey Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr.

Directed by: Regina King

Written by: Kemp Powers

Rated: R

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Barbara Lochiatto is among the residents of The Village profiled in “Some Kind of Heaven.” (Courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

Barbara Lochiatto is among the residents of The Village profiled in “Some Kind of Heaven.” (Courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

The Villages, the nation’s largest retirement community, comes across as an amusingly, and eerily, too-pleasant place in “Some Kind of Heaven,” a documentary exploring how the pursuit of happiness plays out for seniors at this purported utopia — not all of whom feel the magic.

Director Lance Oppenheim focuses on the immense 1980s-created Florida community, which offers aging baby boomers — the generation that thought it could have it all — an old-fashioned living environment reminiscent of their childhoods.

Featuring single-tripod camerawork and fantasyland colors, the film suggests an Errol Morris documentary mixed with a Technicolor melodrama as it initially presents a lively and upbeat picture of the site: impeccably maintained lawns; synchronized golf-cart activities; Florida sunshine; rave reviews from residents; and, increasingly, a more realistic view, represented with the stories of four less convinced denizens.

Anne wants to join the community’s social scene but must deal with the troublesome behavior of her longtime husband, Reggie, whose search for spiritual enlightenment includes the use of illegal drugs.

Barbara, a widow who misses her native Boston, feels unready to explore the Villages’ dating scene.

Dennis, an octogenarian bachelor who has been living in his illegally parked van, hopes to find a wealthy woman who will take him in.

The film rambles somewhat, and a split-screen sequence clashes tonally with the rest of the film.

But overall, it shines as a seriocomic document of how fantasy can’t cure conditions like unhappy marriages and loneliness.

“Some Kind of Heaven” opens Friday at the CinemaSF Virtual Screening Room, Rialto Cinemas Elmwood Virtual Cinema, Rafael@Home and on demand.

REVIEW

Some Kind of Heaven

★★★

With: Anne and Reggie Kincer, Barbara Lochiatto, Dennis Dean

Directed by: Lance Oppenheim

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes

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