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5 Screenwriting Takeaways From Regina King's 'One Night in Miami'

January 22, 2021
3 min read time

The date is February 25th, 1964. The location: Miami, Florida.

Four men at the peak of their careers spend a night in a hotel room.

What makes this story compelling is that those four men are icons Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown. Written by Kemp Powers (Soul), based on his stage play of the same name, and directed by actress-director Regina King (Watchmen), the film follows these four prominenet figures who happen to meet One Night in Miami and embark on conversations that center around race and the social responsibility thrust upon them during the Civil Rights Movement, each one contributing their take on what it means to be a leader in their field and how their influence impacts their conscious and society as a whole.

Here are 5 takeaways writers can consider as they embark on creating their screenplay.

1. Find your theme, and don’t forget it

Kemp Powers stated in an interview on Final Draft’s Write On Podcast that the story poses the question, “What, if any, social responsibility does the black artist have?”

Race is the main theme of One Night in Miami and it’s on display in every scene, sometimes subtle and sometimes right on the nose. But not everyone experiences the Civil Rights Movement and race the same way. The person in the film asking about social responsibility is Malcolm X, and it’s up to the others to defend their perspective to a man considered one of the most well-known leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

Every movie has a theme, but not every writer knows what it is when they start. And that’s fine. But once it’s defined (whether during outlining or starting the second draft) the theme can drive the decisions of each character in the script as it does so aptly in One Night in Miami.

2. Inspired by true events

Powers has admitted that both his play and this film is fiction powered by the truth. It’s always tricky to create a film based on real life events, but a fictionalized version can be just as daunting.

When the audience is familiar with the characters in a film, it’s important to meet the audience expectation of those characters. Powers ensures that the portrayal of these famous four in his film is on-point.

If you don’t meet the audience expectation, there better be a logical reason within the story why it doesn’t. For example, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter or any number of historical figures in the Night at the Museum films, which are more satirical than inspiration from true events.

3. Give them a reason to show up, give them a reason to stay

How do you get four well-known figures to a single location? It can’t be sheer coincidence. Each character had a specific reason to be in Miami that night. While it was a true event, when fictional characters end up at the same place, there must be a reason.

In the context of One Night in Miami, all four characters are in Miami for the fight between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston, Clay being the one in the ring. Malcolm X has invited the three to the hotel room after the fight. Once they’re all in the room, they realize that this isn’t a place to party, but rather a means for a discussion to happen. The reason they stay is curiosity, generosity and even some guilt — they don’t want to leave Malcolm X for the sake of drinks and women.

Any one of them could have left to find any number of parties taking place in Miami, but they chose to stay because they felt something bigger was happening within the confines of the hotel room.

As Powers stated on his podcast, “What if you were a fly on the wall for a conversation you had no business being privy to?” And that’s what he delivers by giving his characters a reason to stay.

4. Stay curious

This movie all started with reading a single paragraph in a book. Powers has stated that when he was a journalist, he was reading a book about race and sports in the 1960s when he crossed a few sentences about this one night. There wasn’t much beyond that but his curiosity piqued. He dove into research for the purposes of writing a book about this event.

It was only after he transitioned from being a journalist to playwright/screenwriter that this story started to grow into the film it became. It all started with curiosity based on a book. Writers are readers and stories can come from any source if they’re receptive and curious.

5. Research to know your characters

Powers' research included reading as much on the event and the people involved as possible. He combed declassified FBI files, biographies, articles and other sources to get into the minds of Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke.

Granted this started as research for a book, when it came to writing them as characters for his play, he was inside their minds and knew how they carry themselves in the context of the conversation. The research created a story that was genuine, even if the conversations that took place never happened as written.

When writing a screenplay based on a true story, research is crucial. Don’t let research be the reason for procrastination, though. At some point, you need to write your script. In Powers’ case, his initial research was designed to write a non-fiction book on the event, so it’s likely your research may not reach the level he achieved.

One Night in Miami is now available to watch on Amazon Prime and you can listen to the Final Draft “Write On” podcast featuring Kemp Powers here.

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