One Night in Miami begins with stories told from the past of each of its four iconic main characters. Small moments from the lives of Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree, a Canadian, portraying Clay only slightly before he would take the name Muhammad Ali), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) are each shown before the men meet on the night in question.
Brown’s memory is one that screenwriter Kemp Powers said was played as “more comedic” in the play from which it was adapted — which he also wrote. The NFL legend is seen visiting a neighbour (Beau Bridges) who welcomes Brown, offers him lemonade and says he’s proud to come from the same city. The two seem to be close and the meeting friendly, until Brown offers to help Mr. Carlton move some furniture inside.
“Oh no,” Mr. Carlton responds, smiling warmly. “You know we don’t allow n—-rs in the house.”
The casual way Regina King chose to represent “how banal hate and racism can be” shocked Powers, as it depicted how “they can chip away over generations to the point that it feels like it’s in our DNA.”
It’s also part of the reason why two of the most talked-about films at the Toronto International Film Festival were the debut features of women of colour, both of whom are better known for their presence in front of the camera, rather than behind it.
“I was a bit taken aback,” Powers said at a virtual TIFF news conference on Friday, “because I didn’t realize how much more I would feel that moment, seeing it play out.”
That discussion drives the entirety of King’s movie, her first turn as a director of a feature film following a series of high-profile television projects, as well as an Academy Award for best supporting actress in 2019 for her performance in If Beale Street Could Talk.
The inclusion of One Night in Miami in the Venice Film Festival just a week prior to its TIFF premiere also brought King another honour — that of becoming the first Black female director in the competition.
While the Vienna festival also saw director Chloé Zhao, who directed Nomadland, become the fifth-ever woman to win the Golden Lion, and TIFF broke records for inclusion of women (45 per cent of its films were made by women compared with 36 per cent last year), for King it’s not a perfect scenario.
“It’s the fact that in 2020, that this is a first in a festival and it’s been happening for 80 years,” King said,” and I can think of so many films directed by black women filmmakers that I just assumed were at Venice, and I didn’t even realize that they weren’t,” she told the TIFF news conference.
“So I understand the responsibility. There’s disappointment that comes along with it.”
If King were to win TIFF’s People’s Choice Award — selected by a vote of festival attendees — she would similarly be the first black female director to do so. That would be a good start for the film, acquired by Amazon earlier this year for what Variety called “one of the biggest independent film sales in history.”
But another director is poised to compete for the same TIFF honour, a woman similarly known for her work as an actor.
Halle Berry’s ‘work in progress’
Halle Berry’s Bruised may have had its world premiere at the festival on Saturday night as a “work in progress,” but it has already landed a massive $19 million US deal with Netflix. Berry also stars in the film, which originally told the story of “a 25-year-old white Irish Catholic girl,” she said during TIFF’s In Conversation With … series on Friday, also a virtual event because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In its current form, Bruised follows a “washed-up MMA fighter struggling for redemption,” a fairly standard pitch. Like One Night in Miami, it does not have a date announced for wide release — the film is still a work in progress primarily due to COVID-19 shutdowns.
Still, the buzz surrounding the film, both at the festival and from the Netflix partnership, has been substantial — Berry credited getting the deal to the excitement built up in Toronto. She also pointed to more women of colour writing, producing and directing their own stories as inspiration for her to move into this new role.
But like King, Berry — who in 2002 became the first and only Black woman to win an Oscar for best actress — sees the accomplishment as bittersweet.
“I think, well, maybe this year, maybe this year, maybe this year. And it has become heartbreaking that no one else has stood there,” Berry said. “And I think, arguably, there could have been other women who deserve to have been there that haven’t been there. And it’s just been heartbreaking.”