The strangest, most up-in-the-air Oscar season has begun with the 77th Venice Film Festival, which features more social distancing and less star power due to COVID-19. But that doesn’t mean that Venice has lost its luster for catapulting a movie into the awards race.
The first bonafide major contender for the 2021 Oscars season arrives with “One Night in Miami” from director Regina King, her feature debut behind the camera. With all the goodness that unfolds over its 110-minute runtime, the drama seems poised to go far in this year’s awards race.
The Amazon Studios’ release tells the story of one incredible night where Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) gathered after Ali defeated Sonny Liston in February 1964. The fictional account follows four historical icons as they discuss the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Two years ago, Regina King overcame considerable Oscar stats to win her first Academy Award for Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Winning the Oscar for best supporting actress, King did so without a SAG or BAFTA nomination, something only Marcia Gay Harden (“Pollock”) has been able to do in the modern awards era. Setting the stage for a very long, unpredictable season, King’s emotionally charged and vibrant helming of this stage play adaptation is wonderfully restrained.
Showing incredible control of the subject, King never lets the story get away from her. Not stepping into the director’s chair as a gimmick, she pays meticulous attention to the four men’s stories and the world she builds for the viewer.
Only five women have found their way into an Oscar lineup for best director over its 92-year history. However, a Black woman has yet to be among the shortlisted despite no shortage of filmmakers in contention — including Ava DuVernay for “Selma” and Dee Rees for “Mudbound.” As the Academy continues to expand its membership, and with a planned strong backing coming from Amazon, King could make history.
The chemistry between the four actors is utterly convincing. You believe that these icons are friends, sharing a mutual love and brotherhood, even when there are disagreements. Screenwriter Kemp Powers, who adapts his stage play, expands the setting beyond the hotel room where the stage production is held. The movie never feels like a stage play, examining the world that surrounds it. Powers should find himself in the thick of the adapted screenplay race. With a screenwriting credit on the upcoming “Soul,” the new original story from Pixar, Kemp has the chance to be the first Black screenwriter to be nominated for original and adapted screenplay Oscars in the same year. Francis Ford Coppola was the last person to be double nominated in both categories in 1974 for “The Conversation” and “The Godfather Part II.”
A prime candidate for the SAG Awards’ top prize for best cast ensemble, Ben-Adir, Goree, Hodge and Odom Jr., are sensationally effective in their roles, offering crucial support to one another. To cite a standout is to travel expeditiously through various parts of the film. The first third is utterly owned by Goree’s high-minded, energetic turn as Muhammad Ali. Having big shoes to fill as Will Smith secured his first Oscar nomination for playing the famed boxer in 2001’s “Ali,” Goree is equally affecting, if not superior, as his ingenious dedication to fulfilling every line is deliciously received.
Hodge’s Jim Brown is much more reserved, taking a bit of a backseat at times, but still showcasing impressive restraint. One year after making his mark in the underrated and underseen “Clemency,” he continues to develop an extraordinary resume.
A scene involving Kingsley-Adir’s Malcolm X and Odom Jr.’s Sam Cooke is one of the most impassioned movie scenes this year, both demonstrating a masterclass of vocal sparring. Similar to Goree’s dilemma, Kingsley-Adir’s portrayal is mainly different from Denzel Washington’s all-time portrayal of the human rights activist in 1992’s “Malcolm X” from Spike Lee. He slivers through Malcolm’s internal conflict as he wrestles with faith and his relationship with Elijah Muhammad, bringing his own unique temperament.
Odom Jr. is already having a bang-up year, standing out in “Hamilton” that premiered on Disney Plus in July. With Disney’s awards team planning on an Academy Awards campaign for the musical, despite reporting that it is not eligible, it will be interesting to see if he will be able to find a singular voice for his chances this year. No decisions have been made yet on the category campaign for any of the men from “One Night in Miami.”
A true ensemble, there is no definitive lead for King’s soulful drama. It should be expected that all men will compete in supporting actor — comparable to 2015’s “Spotlight,” there will likely be a different “favorite” for everyone that takes it in. But there’s also a risk to that strategy: “Spotlight” won best picture, but only saw one male actor nominated (Mark Ruffalo) as co-stars Michael Keaton and Liev Schreiber must have split the vote. (Of course, Rachel McAdams was also nominated for best supporting actress.)
Moving below-the-line for “Miami,” expect some possible love for its production and costume designs, as they both flawlessly bridge the viewer and the time period. On the editing side of the house, Tariq Anwar is at the helm and could be in the hunt again, hoping that the third time is the charm. Anwar has two previous Oscar nominations and no wins, despite them being for two best picture winners (“American Beauty” and “The King’s Speech”).
With its orange hues and luscious structure, the work of cinematographer Tami Reiker is well worth consideration. To date, only one woman has ever been nominated for best cinematography (Rachel Morrison for “Mudbound”), and it’s well past due for more women to join the lineup. Reiker has already stretched her lens earlier this year with Netflix’s “The Old Guard” with Barry Ackroyd as co-DP to exceptional reception.
“One Night in Miami” will screen next at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 10.