In another world, Regina King is being escorted around Toronto right now, basking in the glow of the rave reviews for her directorial debut out of Venice and from the opening night of last night’s TIFF. It’s a shame she won’t get to experience that, but it doesn’t detract from the overall quality of “One Night in Miami,” a powerful piece of dramatic work about four of the most important figures of the 20th century meeting at a career crossroads. Based on the play by Kemp Powers, “One Night in Miami” is complex, dialogue-driven drama, a story of the perceived responsibility of Black celebrity and how that intersects with a racist society and human vulnerability. With incredible performances, it takes these men who we have seen countless times in archival footage and makes them feel fully alive again, and it makes their passions and beliefs feel not like footnotes from the past but relevant to today. There may not be a red carpet or a press tour in Toronto right now, but people will still be talking about “One Night in Miami.”
Based on a true story, King’s debut film opens with what could be called prologues for its quartet of characters. We see Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) being lauded and praised by an old white friend (Beau Bridges), who then refuses to let him into his home. He can be the most popular athlete in the world, but the color of his skin still means he’s not coming through the front door. We see Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) closer to the end of his career than its peak, but still able to afford a fancy room at the Fontainebleau. Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) seems to have a lot on his mind, especially a pending announcement about his joining the Nation of Islam, but he has to concentrate on a fight in Miami tonight first. Finally, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) is struggling with his role given recent revelations about and conflicts with Elijah Muhammad.
All four men end up in a motel room in Miami after Clay wins his fight, and that’s where most of the drama unfolds. They talk about what to do that night, their personalities vibrantly bouncing off one another, and they go to the roof to watch the fireworks. The conversations ebb and flow, moving into issues of faith, racism, and celebrity. Jim Brown reveals he’s considering retiring to focus on acting, Clay speaks of joining The Nation, etc. There’s a sense that these four men are all at essential points in their lives, moments in which they would make major decisions that would impact pop culture, politics, sports, and race relations in ways they couldn’t even imagine. And yet Powers’ script is also playful and, most importantly, deeply human. These guys aren’t mouthpieces; they feel fully-realized and believable in ways that historical figures aren’t often allowed to be in film. We learn more about these four guys sharing screen time than 90% of biopics that focus on only one famous story.
One of the reasons for that is King’s notable gift with directing performance. All four men could accurately be called great, each finding beautifully nuanced beats in which the walls of public perception around this quartet tumble down. Goree finds the playfulness in Clay, especially given how young he was on this particular night. It’s easy to forget how much was on his shoulders at such a young age. Odom may be one of the only people alive with a voice that can compete with Sam Cooke, but he digs deeper than a singing impression to find a famous man’s inner conflict. Hodge captures Brown’s look-you-in-the-eyes confidence, doing a lot with I think the least amount of actual dialogue. And then there’s Kingsley Ben-Adir, who is simply stunning, tearing down the confident artifice of Malcolm X and playing is uncertainty and humanity in ways we haven’t seen before. It’s one of the best performances of 2020.
Some people will say that “One Night in Miami” is too talky, and it struggles to escape its theatrical origins—almost all of it takes place in that one motel room. They’re not wrong, but I have to say that it’s one of the few films of 2020 that I woke up thinking about the next day. As I roll its confident storytelling around in my head, I like it more and more and can’t wait to see it again. I only wish I could see it with the crowd it deserves.
I also wonder how crowds in Toronto would have responded to Glendyn Ivin’s “Penguin Bloom,” an adaptation of the inspirational true story of Cameron Bloom. I suspect some crowds, especially with the cast and even Cameron maybe in attendance, would have embraced this undeniably moving story of human resilience. We’re naturally drawn to tales of people overcoming unimaginable pain—it gives us the hope that we would do the same in the same situation. However, Ivin doesn’t trust her audience enough, gliding across the surface of Bloom’s tragedy in a way that feels melodramatic and simplistic. Everything here feels manufactured to push emotional buttons instead of genuinely telling a true story. Ivin is lucky to have an actress as talented as Naomi Watts to anchor it, but even she can’t save it.
The great actress plays Sam Bloom, a woman who is on vacation with her husband (Andrew Lincoln) and three children) when her life changes forever. Sam is leaning up against a railing when it gives way, plummeting her to the concrete below, and leaving her paralyzed. This all happens in the opening beats of “Penguin Bloom,” giving us too little time to get to know the Bloom family outside of Sam’s injury. Consequently, the film becomes about little more than that instead of the family drama it could have been with a more ambitious script. Even after Sam meets the title character, an injured magpie.
Yes, “Penguin Bloom” is about a woman fighting through injury who befriends a bird doing the same. As unapologetically cheesy as that logline sounds, Watts does push through much of what “Penguin Bloom” could have been in that she doesn’t resort to histrionics to push emotional buttons. However, Ivin doesn’t really know what to do with Watts. So much of “Penguin Bloom” lacks the complexity of her performance with way too much dialogue about people saying what they feel and need in that moments. It treats a very emotional, layered situation with blunt, on-the-nose storytelling.
It’s funny how one draws connections between films at festivals because my final film of the first day of virtual TIFF is also one that struggles to avoid blunt storytelling, especially in its final act. It’s also a film that’s worth seeing only for its central performance, a great turn from the excellent Japanese actor Koji Yakusho. The star of “13 Assassins” and “Babel” plays Mikami in Miwa Nishikawa’s “Under the Open Sky,” and he brings nuance and grace to so much of the film that he elevates every scene. Sadly, the script kind of lets him down in the end, as the film reaches a final act that eschews nuance for melodrama. Still, there’s so much to like in Yakusho’s performance that audiences who are drawn to the works of Nishikawa’s mentor, Hirokazu Kore-eda, should take a look when they have the chance.
The imposing Yakusho pays Mikami, a former soldier in the Yakuza who is being released from prison after over a decade behind bars. He returns to a Japan that offers far too little support structure for his current situation. He has high blood pressure, few job prospects, no more family, and even loud neighbors. A film student wants to interview him about his life in the Yakuza, adding to the sense that his best days are long behind him. He meets constant roadblocks in life, leading one to wonder if he will return to a life of crime, or if that’s even possible, and he has outbursts of rage that could send him back behind bars.
Despite some social commentary about ageism and how little countries do for released convicts, “Under the Open Sky” is really a character study and Nishikawa and Yakusho make Mikami into a remarkably three-dimensional person. I’m not sure how much backstory work Yakusho does, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he could tell you Mikami’s entire life story. It’s such a complex acting turn that I wish the writing in the final act brought it in for a better landing. Still, I won’t soon forget Mikami, and suspect that this is one of the best performances of TIFF 2020.