While Chloe Zhao’s dramatic character study Nomadland, starring two-time Oscar-winning actress Frances McDormand (who will likely land another nomination for her work here), is drawing the most acclaim of any release this year as film festival season kicks off, it is fellow Oscar-winner Regina King’s directorial debut One Night in Miami that has the most tongues wagging.
This is in part due to the film’s casting which, for reasons beyond my own comprehension, has drawn controversy for two non-American actors portraying civil rights martyr Malcolm X and fellow activist and boxing icon Cassius Clay, AKA Muhammad Ali.
While I can very much understand backlash for whitewashing roles, an accent, unlike race, can be considerably altered to the point that audiences would assume they are American, only later to be shocked by their actual nationality. No one seemed to complain when English actors David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo played Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King in Selma, nor did anyone object when the Irish Michael Fassbender was cast as the titular Apple CEO in Steve Jobs, for which he received an Oscar nomination.
So, what’s different here? Perhaps it has to do with the less established actors playing these roles. Englishman Kingsley Ben-Adir, who plays Malcolm X, and Canadian actor Eli Goree who plays Cassius Clay (AKA Muhammad Ali) are hardly household names like the figures they play, but these actors have been accumulating impressive bodies of work that certainly warranted a shot at leading roles.
As such, One Night in Miami has risen above the fabricated controversy with immense praise going to each of the four lead actors, which also includes Straight Outta Compton’s Aldis Hodge as NFL legend Jim Brown and Hamilton alum Leslie Odom Jr. as the singer-songwriter Sam Cooke.
According to early reviews, however, the true star of the show is King as the director. Although the film is a work of fiction featuring real-life historical figures, adapted by Kemp Powers from his play of the same name, One Night in Miami has come at a pivotal time when the collective voice of Black Lives Matter has never been louder. Such sentiments are said to reverberate in King’s direction, as she reconciles the powerful script with an immensely talented cast to deliver a prescient piece in which parallels can be drawn between the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the modern zeitgeist in which we find ourselves.
The buzz around One Night in Miami is so strong, in fact, that there are talks of it being a notable Oscar contender. While it is still too early to call, TIFF is considered one of the earliest indicators of Oscar hopefuls, in particular its People’s Choice Award, as eleven of the last twelve winners have been nominated for Best Picture, while four ultimately won. If Regina King’s film comes away with TIFF’s most coveted award, combined with the Academy’s love for the depiction of historical figures and newly introduced diversity rules, it would be a near-shoe-in for some major Oscar nominations come January.