Confronting societal tensions over racial injustice, religion discrimination and individuals refusing to take personal responsibility for their destructive actions is a powerful battle that’s been gracing the screen in modern history, on both television news programs and in recently released historical films. The gripping new drama, ‘One Night in Miami,’ which is set against the backdrop of one of the biggest upsets in boxing history, stunningly examines the struggle that the Black community endured to achieve racial and religious equality in the mid-1960s. Over 55 years later, the fight of the real-life activists who are showcased in the feature still resonates with modern American culture, especially with this week’s highly divisive presidential inauguration.
The movie is now playing in select theaters and on Prime Video, courtesy of Amazon Studios. ‘One Night in Miami’ marks the feature film directorial debut of Academy and Emmy Award-winning actress, Regina King, who has previously helmed episodes for several television series and TV movies. The drama was written by Kemp Powers, who based the script on his award-winning stage play of the same name.
‘One Night in Miami’ is a fictional account of the historic night in 1964 on which four icons of sports, music and activism gathered to celebrate one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. When underdog Cassius Clay, who would soon become known as Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), defeats heavy weight champion Sonny Liston at the Miami Convention Hall, Clay memorialized the event with three of his friends-Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). Together, they faced the struggles that plagued the Black community during the mid-1960s, and the vital role they each played in the civil rights movement.
Goree, Ben-Adir, Odom Jr. and Hodge generously took the time recently to talk about starring in ‘One Night in Miami’ during a virtual press conference, which was moderated by Ann Hornaday, who’s the chief film critic at The Washington Post. Among other things, the actors discussed how it was a dream for them all to play the inspirational real-life activists in the movie, as they’ve served as heroes for so many people. The performers also emphasized how the film is relatable to what’s happening in modern society, as the Black community is still fighting to be seen, and they hope everyone can engage in empathy to what they’re experiencing, in terms of racial injustice.
During the press conference, Hodge discussed his experience of bringing Brown to life on screen, which was at times challenging, since the former football player is so self-contained. The actor mentioned that he wasn’t able to meet Brown, who’s considered to be one of the greatest players in NFL history, and is the only one of the four main characters who’s still alive in real life, while he was shooting the drama. “But I know a few people who are tied to him, in terms of growing up and watching him engage in his philanthropic work…He’s still teaching and pushing positivity in his community,” the SAG Award-winning performer shared.
“I also did research…into his work as an entrepreneur and businessman, to understand where his business mentality was. Pretty soon after ’64, he retired (from football), and transitioned into film and television. A few years later, he started the Black Economic Union,” Hodge shared.
“So in the film, we find him in this transitional space of maintaining who he is, while also taking control of his power and value. He’s been this mega star football player, but he still knows how people see and treat him. So he wasn’t going to ask for anyone’s permission, and was going to do what he needed to do for himself. Then when he get there, he was going to bring his people with him,” the actor added.
The Grammy Award-winning Odom Jr. also chimed in on his experience of becoming attached to star in ‘One Night in Miami.’ He admitted that he initially felt that he wasn’t the right actor to portray Cooke, a singer-songwriter and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, on screen. “I thought there must be somebody somewhere who was more well-suited than me, so I passed on the audition. It’s embarrassing for me to tell this story,” the Tony Award-winning performer revealed. “But the truth is, every now and then, someone sees something in you that you don’t see in yourself, and that was my experience with Regina.”
Goree then delved into how he became attached to portray Clay right before he changed his name to Ali. “It was a long journey for me; it was a life-long dream…I had the opportunity to audition to play him for another project, but I didn’t get the role. So I decided that I wanted to continue to try to achieve that dream, so I continued to prepare, and I thought there would be another opportunity to play him. It didn’t come right away; it took about a year-and-a-half of me preparing, and I still didn’t have anything, so I thought about doing a play,” the actor shared. “In the process of doing the play, the audition for this role came about, and I feel very blessed.”
Ali’s friendship with Malcolm X, particularly in their shared political and religious beliefs in the Nation of Islam, was an aspect of the story that Ben-Adir was drawn to while he was playing the Muslin minister and human rights activist. The performer described the preparation process for showcasing not only that relationship on screen, but his character’s entire arc throughout the story, an intense whirlwind.
“I was trying in ingest all of the language, and understand what Malcolm’s place was within this story. I also tried my best to understand what was going on in Malcolm’s life, and find all of the information I could help me find the courage to tap into his vulnerability,” Ben-Adir shared.
Malcolm X “was a hero on so many levels, and a fearless human being; he put his life on the line for Black people. I understood quite early on from the brilliance of the writing that it was the vulnerability of all of these men that was going to create this story,” the actor added.
Further speaking of the drama’s story, Odom Jr. praised Power’s script “I can attest to Kemp’s willingness to make changes and collaborate. We got this brilliant roadmap from him, so when we arrived in New Orleans (where the movie was shot), we all tried to internalize the twists and turns,” the performer revealed.
“Every now and again, I would have to call Kemp in L.A. and tell him, ‘I don’t have what I need right here. Malcolm’s been coming at me for four pages, and tomorrow, I have to respond to him, and I don’t quite have what I need to come back at him.’ Kemp always came back with something better and upped the ante,” Odom Jr. also noted. “With Kemp’s script, we got to go into that hotel room and fly.”
Hodge also honored Powers’ screenplay by noting that the issues the four main characters contend with throughout the plot are still relatable today. “Everything’s relevant. They’re fighting to be seen, acknowledged and respected, and they’re not asking anyone’s permission,” the actor pointed out.
“I think the wonderful thing about the conversation is that even though it’s wonderful and tragic at the same time, it’s still being discussed. One of the things the movie exhibits so well is that these men have different opinion on certain things, but figured out how to come together to positively debate and reach the same goal, in a progressive way, and in a way that celebrates them all,” Hodge continued. “I think that’s something that’s so needed in our community right now.
“Even for people who aren’t as emotionally invested, they can still sit back and learn that our pain is real. You have four titans who are still not absolved of the stain of the image that America has on the Black community, regardless of their accomplishments and what they’ve done for America,” the performer also shared.
“I think this movie effectively allows people to understand what the conversation is that’s being had. Hopefully, they’ll engage a little empathy in themselves, and question what they could and should be doing to address the humanity that should be dispersed when dealing with what we’re going through. This isn’t a conversation that has just sparked up; we’ve been having it, and grew up with it,” Hodge noted.
“What we touch on in this is still current and we’re still dealing with it, because racism has never dissolved; it’s only graduated to what people deem to be culturally appropriate, so that they can ignore or dismiss it. With this film, you get to watch what that experience is, and see it’s not okay,” the actor also shared.
“Hopefully, you’ll walk away from (the movie) with a new charge to understand and empathize a little bit more. Hopefully, you’ll also realize there’s still work that needs to be done, and want to be a part of that, and heal the issues that are seldom dealt with in the right ways in this country. I think this film is a great asset in the progressive healing that we need,” Hodge concluded.