One Night In Miami imagines the night spent together by Malcom X, Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown. Laura Harding meets King and the cast.
On February 25 1964, the boxer then known as Cassius Clay surprisingly defeated Sonny Liston to win the championship title.He celebrated his win with his friends, the activist Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke and NFL star Jim Brown, in Malcolm’s small, unglamorous motel room.
One Night In Miami, the directorial debut of the Oscar-winning actress Regina King, takes us into the room with these young, famous men, imagining the conversations they had, the music they played and the arguments they fought as they debated their roles in the civil rights movement and their approach to black leadership and freedom.
The film was shot last year, some of it before the world shut down due to coronavirus, but the rest later on, after Black Lives Matter protests had been held all over the world, following the death of unarmed black man George Floyd.
“The things that we were talking about in this film are things that have been prescient for black people far before 1964,” says King over Zoom.“And I think it was one of those things, a nod from the universe, because there were really powder keg moments that were happening in ’64, ’63, ’62, and then we come full circle, to this powder keg moment in 2020.
“So I think as a team we felt like this story was always going to be relevant, but now there are even more people whose minds are fertile and ready and more open to receive the message.”The film is based on a play by Kemp Powers, who recently co-directed the Pixar movie Soul, and King describes his script as a “punch” to her.
“This is an actor’s piece, it truly is, and the dialogue is the star, and to be an actor that relishes in the moment of receiving content where the dialogue just makes you swoon upon reading, that was attractive to me.
“I thought ‘Oh my god I would love to play any of these men’.”In spite of that, Leslie Odom Jr, best known for originating the role of Aaron Burr in the Broadway production of Hamilton, said no to the chance to play Cooke at first.
“Who would want to do that?” he says with a laugh. “Sam Cooke – those are mighty big shoes and it took me about 15 years to get any kind of acceptance for who I am. Hamilton was really the thing that allowed people to have a little bit of putting a name with a face, and I just felt like I can be myself a little bit.
“Because when you start out, people are like ‘You’re the next Denzel!’ or ‘You’re not quite Denzel enough’, or ‘You’re the next Don Cheadle’, ‘You’re not quite Don Cheadle enough’, and so for the first time I felt people were letting me be the very best version of Leslie Odom Jr, so why would I try to be a terrible Sam Cooke?
“But it was Kemp Powers’ script that really won me over, he was trying to do something daring in this movie and I knew that Regina was the one to lead the way.”British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir, who plays Malcolm X, also felt nervous to take on his part, but was determined that King would never know.
“I wanted to present her with my own version of fearlessness,” he says, “because I didn’t want her to feel at any stage that the person she was employing to play Malcolm X was cautious or unsure, even though the Malcom in this film required such a huge vulnerability.
“Even if I was frightened, I was fronting to Regina that I was super-confident. I don’t know how much of that was a defence mechanism, trying to block out how significant the pressure was.
“But the good thing for us was by the time I was cast I only had 12 days to prepare, so I didn’t have time to worry or think about anything, other than trying to do a real deep dive into Malcom and who he was, and more importantly who he was at this time,
on this night.
“I think one of the most interesting things about this project was understanding in the research that the changes that were going on for Malcolm at this time were huge, there was a real sense that his life was in danger and his religious and political thinking was about to undergo a huge shift.”
Indeed the film is set shortly before Malcolm X split publicly with Nation Of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. A year later he would be dead.
Also on the brink of a precipice was Clay, who would soon announce his commitment to his new faith and take a new name, Muhammad Ali, and Riverdale actor Eli Goree transformed his body for the part.
But it was the protests of last summer that were more transformative for him than any physical training.“As a black man in this world, this has always been a high intensity interaction with society, it’s been heightened stakes my whole life, but definitely things had a huge seismic shift after Covid (when production shut down), in terms of the public outcry and it made a big difference for me in my performance.
“I had a scene with Leslie in the car where I’m talking about what black people really want is to be free and to make our own choices and determine our own futures and to be treated as human beings.
“And that scene was very difficult for me in the audition process, I remember really searching to connect to the words, to make them real.
“Even though I felt them, it’s sometimes hard to express that as an artist in a way that isn’t cliche or isn’t trying to force something, and just to say it and to have it be what it is and be real and connect, without trying to make anything up.
“After that whole experience and having the opportunity to process all that, getting on set I remember those scenes were so easy because everything I was saying, I literally could have been talking to Leslie just as my friend and saying those exact same words.” Straight Outta Compton actor Aldis Hodge had wrapped filming by the time the protests happened but is hopeful they have changed how the film will be viewed.
“I didn’t count on how the rest of the world would engage with the importance of the subject matter in the months that were to come,” he says.
“So when we shot it I knew how important it was but after all the things happened and when we finally debuted, I said ‘Wow this is so much more powerful now because we have the eyes and the ears of the world upon us’, and when I say that, I mean upon us black people and understanding what our struggle actually is.
“So I feel like this film is just a powerful tool to really help people understand and realise the necessity to deal with this, when it comes to fairness and equity for black people.”One Night In Miami is out now on Amazon Prime Video.
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