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‘One Night in Miami’ maintains historical accuracy through unique creative choices

(Courtesy of Patti Perret)

By Eden Yeh

April 18, 2021 6:39 p.m.

Regina King’s film directorial debut is rooted in a meeting of the minds – both on and off the big screen.

“One Night in Miami” has garnered a collection of accolades including Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Song. The film depicts a 1964 meeting between Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) following Clay’s boxing victory over Sonny Liston at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

While the majority of the film takes place in a Hampton House motel room, production designer Barry Robison said creative decisions such as lighting and camera angles and financial considerations such as the film’s budget were made to create a historically accurate and visually appealing story.

“Regina and I didn’t want to take in too many liberties theatricality wise, so we kept it heavily rooted in reality,” Robison said. “The images that we called were mostly from Life magazine and Kodachrome images of the period.”

[Related: Oscar-nominated film ‘Mank’ aims to authentically portray 1930s Hollywood]

Following the research phase, Robison said he was tasked with creating the overall look of the film and collaborating with King to bring her vision of the historical event to life on the silver screen. Robison said the driving factor behind his creative decisions was a commitment to the film’s real locations, especially Hampton House. While the abundance of magazine clippings and color film of locations for the production’s inspiration was invaluable, Robison said it was equally important to collect contemporary photo documentation of the Hampton House’s current state to create a historically accurate version for exterior shots.

The scenes depicting the Hampton House’s exterior exude a vibrant energy that Robison said reflects the celebratory atmosphere following Clay’s championship win. Although designing these shots was straightforward based on the considerable documentation available, he said maximizing the interior of Malcolm X’s motel room proved difficult.

“It was a pretty interesting design challenge because a motel room is usually no more than 14 by 16 feet, so that is very, very small,” Robison said. “And going back to ‘One Night in Miami’ as a stage play, it all did take place on stage in the room. But for the film, Regina wanted to open the film up. It was actually a fun challenge.”

Initial worries about the confined space included limited movement between the actors and a lack of front and back lighting. After deliberation with King and the director of photography, Tami Reiker, Robison said he pitched the idea that Malcolm X’s celebrity status meant the Hampton House could have accommodated adjoining rooms, granting a reason for the enlarged space to shoot the scenes.

Camera movements in this space also served to maximize movement within the room. In order to avoid scenes feeling stagnant, unconventional choices such as operating cameras behind holes in the walls provide varied perspectives of the dialogue and emotion seen on screen, Reiker said.

“Regina really wanted to keep, especially in the hotel room, the camera alive, so it didn’t feel too static or cutty,” Reiker said. “I suggested to her that we use two jib arms manually operated, so the cameras could keep floating from character to character and even tiny imperceptible movements are always floating.”

[Related: Q&A: UCLA alumnus talks visual effects in Academy Award-nominated ‘Mulan’]

In addition to the floating movement achieved by manually operating the jib arms, Reiker said lighting also played a fundamental role in emphasizing the dynamic emotional tensions and camaraderie between the characters. A notable point of discourse in the film surrounds singer Cooke’s musical success among white audiences – a demographic that Malcolm X believes to be shallow and damaging, especially during the civil rights movement. Reflected in her somber lighting choices, Reiker said Malcolm X’s convictions about Cooke’s loyalty to the Black community are met with increasing resentment.

“In the hotel room, the lighting gets darker and heavier as the conversation gets more and more intense,” Reiker said. “On the other hand, the introductions to each of the men were brighter like Jim Brown’s first scene in Georgia on a warm summer morning.”

Reiker’s deliberate lighting choices also helped establish the film’s color palette. Janessa Hitsman, a set decorator for “One Night in Miami,” said colors were not only important for the film’s narrative themes surrounding racial tensions during the 1960s, but were also necessary for perfecting the way the lighting would play off certain colors and skin tones. She said colors also served as visual cues for certain locations, as warm tones were used for places where the characters were welcomed and cool tones were used to reflect tense areas.

In the Hampton House motel room, Hitsman said colors coupled with the wallpaper’s textures and draperies were perfected to provide luminosity or absorb brightness depending on King’s vision for each scene. Because the film’s shooting locations were already limited, she said it was especially crucial for the creative team to get every element – including colors and textures – just right. Hitsman said the team’s thorough research and experimentation with lighting, color and set design choices resulted in a visually dynamic story.

“With a feature film, the director’s vision is truly the most important thing on the show, and Regina was so pleasant to work with,” Hitsman said. “We traded reference books back and forth, she trusted us to make the right decisions, and we’d always make sure that she was involved in all situations.”

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