The majority of American filmmakers and actors couldn’t make it to the Venice Film festival but Zoom at least made a press conference for Amazon Prime’s One Night in Miami possible. First-time director Regina King, best known for her acting roles in Watchmen and If Beale Street Could Talk, accompanied Kemp Powers who wrote the film’s screenplay based on his play, about the 1964 meeting of four black luminaries. The actors playing them were in attendance: Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X), Aldis Hodge (NFL player Jim Brown), Leslie Odom Jr. (singer Sam Cooke) and Eli Goree (Cassius Clay, who would soon become known as Muhammad Ali after joining Malcolm X’s Nation of lslam).
Here are some of their comments.
I first read about the gathering of these four great men in Mike Marqusee’s book Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties, about the intersection between sports and the Civil Rights Movement. It was impossible for me not to focus on it, because on the day I read it 15 years ago, if you asked me who were the four most inspirational men on my life, it would have been these four men. I jokingly said to a friend that I accidently discovered the Black Avengers. So, this book suddenly became the inspiration for writing this piece of fiction.
My mother saw the film for the first time last night. I’ve been an actor since I was a child, and this is the first time she cried during a film that I was in. She told me it was so powerful to her, because when she was young in the ‘60s, Cassius Clay was the first black person who said he was beautiful and she said it affected everyone after that. She said these guys had an impact on the pride and self-worth of African American people and she felt this film captured that.
As a black man, the conversations in the film are the conversations we have in our daily life. The beautiful thing about our art as actors and entertainers is that we have an opportunity to influence real progress and affect real change, to help our own people have conversations.
Leslie Odom Jr.
I was part of another piece of art in the States that travelled around the world, a Broadway show called Hamilton. As I try to figure out acting for film – it’s a very different medium. With One Night in Miami, I felt fortunate to be able to find another work that was also going from the stage to the screen.
Malcolm X and Cassius Clay were incredibly charismatic leaders and I had the desire to humanise them and also to make this film as a bridge to the present through this humanisation. They had their weaknesses and doubts, as Kemp’s script shows, and he wrote a love letter to the black man’s experience. We needed to find actors able to access that vulnerability and we were lucky that Eli and Kingsley both really personally embodied those things.
Through Kemp’s story, we became aware of the unique opportunity to explore their vulnerability in a way you haven’t seen them before. We always see these men at work, always in the limelight and this was the opportunity for us to play them in a room. I tried to find something of Malcolm when he wasn’t in a public situation; we usually only see him responding to atrocities.
Can Ben-Adir compare the role with playing Barack Obama in Showtime’s upcoming The Comey Rule? (At times in One Night in Miami, the British actor bears a canny resemblance to the former US President.)
They can’t be compared; they’re completely different and wonderful in their own way, and they come from two completely different times. I happened to be playing them both at the same time, so the job was to try and spread my time out in a way so I could try and concentrate on each one and not get confused. I spent much more time with Malcolm. With Obama, the approach was simpler, whereas with Malcolm it felt like a deep emotional dive into his history. I knew once Regina cast me that an opportunity like this would not come again for a while, if ever.