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Flirtations between fiction and fact make up the bulk of this week’s best streaming offerings.
While the time-honoured biopic is a common occurrence around this time of year in preparation for the go-around of awards season, this year has brought some particularly uncommon approaches to the format.
Over on Prime Video, Michael Almereyda’s Tesla in particular plays with the relationship between dramatisation and fact, using mistruths and obvious artifice to highlight emotional truths. Similarly, Regina King’s directorial debut One Night in Miami uses real events to build compelling hypothetical situations, and wonders what such famous and crucial figures in Black history might have said to each other behind closed doors.
Over on BFI Player, Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI provides more straightforward documentary, an organisation of archive footage detailing the campaign of demonisation against Martin Luther King carried out by the FBI, as well as detailing J Edgar Hoover’s deranged racist obsession with him. If all of that proves too heavy, MUBI has a lighter title coming up on its ever rotating line-up with Wes Anderson’s superlative stop motion animated feature, Fantastic Mr Fox.
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One Night in Miami - Amazon Prime Video
Regina King’s debut feature film as director is one of those stage plays-as-cinema that actually compels because of its enclosed setting rather than in spite of it. Based on the play by Kemp Powers (who is also serving as screenwriter here), it finds four figureheads of Black culture and the civil rights movement spending, well, one night together in Miami.
Watch: Regina King on One Night In Miami production
Watch a clip from One Night In Miami
After Cassius Clay’s (just about to take the name Muhammad Ali) defeat of Sonny Liston in 1964, the boxer meets with Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown in a hotel room, where friendly jabs quickly turn heated over their differing views on how to fight American racism. Once they’ve been set up its simply wall-to-wall good acting from great and under-appreciated performers, Kingsley Ben-Adir standing out with his vulnerable and fallible performance of Malcolm X, one that manages to remain out of the shadow of Denzel’s landmark performance of the man in Spike Lee’s biopic.
Tesla - Amazon Prime Video
At once emphasising the artifice of its imagery while presenting it with the matter-of-factness of documentary, Michael Almereyda’s Tesla is immediately unlike a lot of biopics. Repartnering with longtime collaborator Ethan Hawke (who plays the eponymous inventor) Almereyda is interested in actively navigating the divide between dramatisation and biography, highlighting the former through the pointed use of gorgeous painted backdrops as well as various bizarre falsities and anachronisms, such as Edison (played by a smirking Kyle MacLachan) and Tesla hitting each other with cones of ice cream, or the narrator claiming that a certain meeting between the two never happened, before Edison promptly whips out a smartphone.
It knows not to make such things overbearing however, having a good sense of when to play its story straight and when to break from the formula of the biopic, those breaks always highlighting the conflict and struggle of Tesla as the artisan, and Edison’s eclipsing of him as the ruthless businessman (a bizarre and delightful scene of karaoke included). It’s all sumptuously shot by Sean Price Williams, another long time collaborator with Almereyda (as well as the likes of the Safdie Brothers on Good Time), as each scene has an appropriately luminescent glow. Strange viewing, but worthwhile.
Also on Prime: Munyurangbo
Fantastic Mr Fox - MUBI
Wes Anderson’s stop motion animated feature was perhaps an inevitability: with the absolute and precise control that he displays over what seems like every aspect of his live action features, a medium in which you adjust each character by hand makes perfect sense for him. Fantastic Mr Fox is his first major foray into the medium and it of course proves an excellent match for his sensibilities, the plucky tale of animal resistance against destructive human industrialism tinged with that oddball, occasionally quite dark sense of humour that defines Anderson’s other work. It’s all of course carried out by an all star cast of voice performers, lead by George Clooney as the wiley Mr Fox and excelling in the quick witted quips that come with the character.
Also on MUBI: Harmonium, Once Upon a Time in America
MLK/FBI - BFI Player
The targeting of Martin Luther King by the FBI is the main subject of Sam Pollard’s precise, galvanising documentary. Pollard primarily uses archive footage and voiceover to piece together the story, the talking head experts remaining off-camera for the film’s entirety.
Watch the trailer for MLK/FBI
As a director well-practiced in editing the film has a constant (but not overwhelming) momentum to it, maintaining urgency through his deliberate and incredibly thorough journalistic organisation of both the obsessive case the agency was trying to create against King as well as the mounting evidence of how much FBI propaganda had ingrained itself in the American consciousness. While it doesn’t sound like easy viewing (and it isn’t), its hugely compelling, and extremely galvanising work.
Watch: Leslie Odom Jr. says he initially said no to playing Sam Cooke in 'One Night in Miami'
Also on BFI Player: 76 Days, Gone Too Far!