By Lynn Venhaus
A play-based drama imagines conversations between four black icons during a crucial time in the civil rights fight.

Playwright Kemp Powers adapted his 2013 stage play, “One Night in Miami,” which set their fictional meeting on Feb. 25, 1964, after Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) emerged as the new heavyweight boxing champion by defeating Sonny Liston at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

Joining him afterwards at the Hampton House Motel in the African American Overtown neighborhood is activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and legendary NFL running back Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge).

These influential black men discuss their responsibility and roles in the burgeoning civil rights movement.

On the cusp of the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, four famous black men feel pressured as symbols, trying to determine how to support equality and empower others through their celebrity.

The discussions are thought-provoking throughout, even though the film can’t quite shake its theatrical roots. But it’s the performances that galvanize “One Night in Miami.” One of the finest ensembles of the year features four young talents establishing their value, and each is riveting.

Kingsley Ben-Adir is fire and brimstone as Malcolm X, whose heated exchanges with Cooke do lead to a new direction for the singer, as shown later in “A Change Is Gonna Come” performed on “The Tonight Show.”

As the confident Malcolm X, Ben-Adir, however, expresses doubt and grapples with loyalty to the Nation of Islam.

Eli Goree, a veteran of TV’s “Ballers” and “Riverdale,” nails the glibness and distinct cadence of Clay, who is mulling over his decision to become Muhammad Ali.

Leslie Odom Jr., Tony winner as Aaron Burr in “Hamilton,” is electric as soul music pioneer Cooke, smoothly delivering several hits. A flashback to him salvaging a live show with an a capella “Chain Gang” is one of the film’s highlights.

Aldis Hodge, long a secret weapon in films, imbues his Brown with more anger and depth as he debates a future beyond football. In one of the film’s most significant scenes, he is humiliated by a wealthy bigot (Beau Bridges) during the Jim Crow era.

Oscar-winning actress Regina King, making her directorial debut, just gives her actors room to breathe. And the dialogue crackles, resonating beyond that night and emphasizing the impact these men had in their lives. 

By the end of the year, Malcolm X was assassinated and Cooke was killed in a sketchy incident – and the athletes became two of the greatest there ever was.

This evening may have taken place nearly 57 years ago but it feels timely. It’s definitely a conversation-starter for any age.

“One Night in Miami” is a drama based on Kemp Powers’ play, directed by Regina King and starring Kingsley Ben-Adir, Leslie Odom Jr., Aldis Hodge and Eli Goree. Rated R for language throughout, the movie’s run-time is 1 hr. 54 min. Lynn’s Grade: B+
Now playing in theatres and on Amazon Prime Jan. 15

By Lynn Venhaus
Oh, so clever and profound, “Soul” tackles life’s Big Questions with whimsy and warmth.

An inspiring ode to mentors and finding our ‘spark,’ this original screenplay by director Pete Doctor, co-director Kemp Powers, and Mike Jones is a fresh take on a subject we generally ignore.

Docter, the genius behind Oscar winners “Up” and “Inside Out,” has gone into new territory while the animators have done stunning, next level work we’ve not seen before.

As the first African-American lead Pixar character, Joe (Jamie Foxx) is a middle-school band teacher whose true passion is jazz. So, when he gets a shot at performing with the revered Dorothea Williams Quartet, he thinks fate has finally smiled on him. However, destiny had another crossroads in mind – and he has wound up in the “Great Before.” He is paired with a wisecracking infant soul (Tina Fey), trying to figure her life out. Traveling between realms allows him to discover what it means to have “soul.”

The music score is glorious, with hypnotic other-worldly compositions by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and jazz compositions and arrangements by Jon Batiste.

Batiste, the band director of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’s house band, Stay Human, did the piano performances for Joe in the film – his unmistakable long lean fingers gliding over the 88 keys with such joy. The man exudes optimism every time he tickles the ivories.

“Soul” is geared towards parents more than children, but lessons can be extracted for older youth.

The small moments of life are celebrated, as are the colorful personalities we meet along the way – trombonist Connie, mystic Moonwind, seamstress Melba, barber Dez, obsessive-compulsive accountant Terry, and all those Counselor Jerrys.

Tina Fey is a delight. While Joe and Soul 22 are on their big-city escapades, which are fast and funny, the ‘no-body’ discovers Earth isn’t boring – although she refers to it as “this hellish planet,” but one whiff of pizza and she’s stuffing herself with New York City street food.

Steve Pilcher’s production design of a teeming New York City is remarkable, as is his ethereal Great Before, a mix of pastels and golden lights.

In much the same way as Thornton Wilder’s prose resonates in “Our Town” — “Oh, Earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you…”, “Soul” will stay with you.

And in true Pixar fashion, one must remain for the credits – and they don’t disappoint. The production crew credits appear in the beads of Terry’s abacuses, and the infant souls play games.

Instead of the production babies’ list, they’ve titled it “Recent You Seminar graduates.’

This trip to the astral plane is “Dedicated to all the mentors in our lives,” and is to be savored.

“Soul” is a fantasy animated feature film directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers. Starring Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Angela Bassett, Phylicia Rashad, Graham Norton and Questlove, the film runs 1 hour and 40 minutes and is rated PG for thematic elements and some language. Lynn’s Grade: A. Now streaming on Disney Plus at no extra charge.
Lynn’s Grade: A