Adapted from a stage play of the same name, “One Night in Miami” reexamines the relationship between four influential men and how a single night’s discussion could make a lasting impact on the world.
The film follows a fictionalized conversation between Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Cassius Clay — who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali — on the night that Clay wins his first world heavyweight championship.
Expecting a post-fight celebration, they instead discuss the responsibilities that come with being prominent, successful Black men during the Civil Rights movement. An intense debate ensues regarding the most effective way to use their respective platforms in the fight for liberation and whether what they’re doing is enough.
On Monday night, American Cinematheque hosted a virtual Q&A with “One Night in Miami” stars Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir and writer Kemp Powers. They discussed how director Regina King left her unique mark on the film and what it was like for each of the actors to embody such iconic historical figures.
Praising King in her directorial debut, Powers discussed how although screenwriters are usually removed from the production process, King convinced him to stay attached.
“I was just trying to answer as many of Regina’s questions as possible hoping that she would come on and direct this film and she was the one who was just like ‘Yeah, I want you to stay involved and be a part of this process,’” Powers said. “She told me that the story resonated to her so strongly because it made her think of so many of the Black men in her life. Her son, her uncles, her father — and that was really powerful.”
Although King is an acclaimed actress, this was her first time directing a feature film. Having only previously dabbled in TV directing, this film presented her with a unique challenge since the majority of it takes place in one room. However, King rose to the occasion, with Oscar buzz already predicting that she will gain a “Best Director” nomination.
If King wins the award, she will be only the second woman in history to receive the honor, but Powers said that it is precisely her gender that made this film work.
“I think that this is a very testosterone-filled story and I think it gets balanced and it gets improved by having a Black woman at the helm as the captain of the ship — and that’s exactly what she was,” Powers said. “I think the end result just wouldn’t be what it is if not for Regina’s really deft hand.”
Rotten Tomatoes film critic Jacqueline Coley moderated the discussion and commented on the historic and profound impact that King’s success has on how the film industry sees the merit of the female perspective.
“This film especially proves that female filmmaking does not necessarily always mean putting women as the subject,” Coley said. “It means the female gaze and I think she really exemplifies how the female gaze of filmmaking is remarkable.”
The four lead actors underwent the monumental task of portraying famous figures each with recognizable mannerisms and dialects. Wanting to do these men justice, they each spent months preparing every detail of their characters.
Eli Goree plays Clay as he wins his first world championship and prepares to convert to Islam. Goree was dedicated to playing this icon perfectly, obsessing over the way he said each word.
“There is a part where I am looking in the mirror and I say ‘heavyweight champ of the whole world’ and it kept not sounding right, it didn’t sound like him,” Goree said. “It was bothering me and I’d call up my dialect coach and just say champ like 5,000 times on the phone.”
“Hamilton” breakout star Leslie Odom Jr. not only played the role of famous soul singer Sam Cooke but recorded all-original vocals for the film as well. Cooke’s voice defined a generation of soul music and is instantly recognizable to many fans. Rather than attempting to imitate his voice, Odom Jr. tried to psychologically understand Cooke’s choices about things such as where to take a breath and where not to in order to capture the essence of the song.
Luckily Odom Jr. is a lifelong fan of Cooke and already learned a lot from listening to him. “Singing is an oral tradition and so Sam has been one of my teachers, one of my mentors, for most of my life but I never crawled inside the recordings in the way that I did for this film,” Odom Jr. said.
The preparation for Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X and Aldis Hodge’s Jim Brown were equally as profound. Ben-Adir tapped into the lesser known personal side of Malcolm, showing him as a man with flaws and struggles as contrasted to the self-assured leader he was in public.
Hodge’s Brown set the film into motion with a powerful opening scene where he is praised and complemented by a white man in his Georgia hometown, then refused entry to his house due to his race.
Together, these talented men formed an ensemble that accomplished their goal of doing justice to some of the most famous figures in American history.
“This is not a biopic about any one of these men individually, it’s about a conversation, it is about a relationship,” Hodge said.