“These men were inspirations for us”: the stars of One Night in Miami brought Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali to life

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KIngsley Ben-Adir’s transformation into Malcolm X in gripping new movie One night in Miami … did not go as well as it appears on the screen. “The hair was too light, then it was too dark,” he recalls. “And then it was too orange. We explored some prosthetics, but they weren’t for me. The glasses, however? These crisp frames and eyebrows constantly drawn in our cultural memory of the activist and iconic leader? Once Ben-Adir put them on, they didn’t leave his head once. “They stayed for about two months,” he laughs.

Transformation is at the heart of One night in Miami …, which dramatizes the meeting behind closed doors of four black legends on February 25, 1964, all in a period of great transition. There was Malcolm, one of the most prominent voices in the black liberation struggle, who was on the verge of leaving the increasingly busy Nation of Islam; soul singer Sam Cooke, whose fame among a predominantly white audience sparked a backlash among his black fans; American footballer Jim Brown, who was about to leave the sport to focus on the theater; and prize fighter Cassius Clay, who would change his name to Cassius X and then to Muhammad Ali. The friends were all present at that night’s historic fight between Clay and Sonny Liston, then retreated to a single hotel room, where life was meditated and ice cream consumed.

Ben-Adir’s performance, HamiltonLeslie Odom Jr, Aldis Hodge and Eli Goree, respectively, are complete and multifaceted representations of men we know and revere. They are also deeply human, given that the stories of the four tend to be flattened as they have passed into cultural myth. We witness Ali’s youthful vulnerability, Cooke’s private discomfort about his music, Malcolm’s paranoia and fear for the safety of his family – he would be murdered less than a year later.
Ben-Adir – who is best known for his television roles in Peaky Blinders, L’OA and High fidelity, and last year played another black American icon, Barack Obama, in a Showtime miniseries – says Malcolm has often been misunderstood. The British actor quotes prominent civil rights activist Dick Gregory, who once said that his close friend Malcolm was portrayed as a “slashing demagogue” by the media. “It was really a character that Malcolm slipped into,” says Ben-Adir from his home in London. “He was a gentle and modest man, and a kind and gentle father. A lot of the videos we have of Malcolm have him reacting to hideous cases of racism, which usually just happened 24 hours ago. So it’s no surprise that he’s still edgy and passionate. Malcolm in private was very different.
Kemp Powers’ script for the film, which he adapted from his own award-winning play, is guided by this conflict between public and private. Malcolm X, Cooke, Brown, and Ali all have their own secret troubles, which can only be expressed after the rest of the world has been locked up. Powers imagined the four men’s conversations about race, fame and masculinity, but they ring with heartbreaking truth.
Director Regina King, Oscar winner for If Beale Street could speak and Guardians, making her debut behind the camera. His four prominent men, all talking about their respective homes via Zoom, light up at the mention of his name and admit to being a little surprised at times. “She has given us so many beautiful portraits of black life in this country,” Odom Jr says of her movie roles. “She made us discover so much soul! All of those gorgeous black women we’ve seen through Regina King.
Regina King directs Aldis Hodge on the set of One Night in Miami

(Patti Perret / Amazon Studios)

King wanted to recreate the sincerity and complexity that she imbues in his female characters, but through the black male experience, says Ben-Adir. “Regina’s mission statement was that this movie is a love letter to black men,” he recalls. “These men are explored in a very specific way, and it depends so much on the vulnerability and love between them in private and outside of the media. [glare]. »
This resulted in intense pressure to do things right. Hodge, speaking of Brooklyn, and Odom Jr, at his home in Los Angeles, are still worried about whether they have done their characters justice (spoiler: they absolutely did). Doubly for Hodge, with Brown the only icon of the film’s central quartet still alive. They could not meet before the shooting. “I’ve heard he approves though,” Hodge said, pretending to wipe his forehead. “So we’re good! We have passed it!
Odom Jr, meanwhile, grew up listening to Cooke and was very reluctant to play him. “Sam, in many ways, was one of my teachers,” he said, eyes closed reverently. “He’s also the role model for all modern black singers, and he’s incredibly meaningful to me. Honestly, I thought Regina was making a really big mistake signing me up. I thought the shoes would fit badly. But now I’m just thankful that she saw something in me before she saw it in me.
The four men were characters in the background of the actors’ early lives. Books about Malcolm lined the shelves belonging to Ben-Adir’s parents, while Gorée recalls that Ali was part of the cultural lexicon growing up, one of the many stories of dark legends passed down from generation to generation. “These men were an inspiration to us,” he recalls, from his base in California. “They spread in the community, through my mother and grandmother, and in my church.”
With his boxer figure and gentle features, Gorée is the most visually similar to the man he was chosen for and perfectly matches Ali’s rousing bravado. He says he feels different after playing it. “I’m a very introverted person and he was so outgoing,” he explains. “He got energy from others and I love being alone. I’m someone who likes to read my script and study on my own, go out and do my performance, then come back and refocus. But I stayed in the character [off camera], and I really walked in these shoes, and have worn some of them ever since. Just her persistence and tenacity, and the importance of being bold and willing to speak out about what you believe in.
Kingsley Ben-Adir in a night in Miami

(Patti Perret / Amazon Studios)

This tension, of all that you give of yourself as a black man in the spotlight, fuels a lot of One night in Miami …. Throughout the film, Malcolm accuses Cooke of abandoning the black audience that propelled him to fame and of not using his platform to uplift his community. Cooke argues that his presence in the cleanrooms, performing fairly apolitical music, is enough to bridge a racial divide. The film leaves the matter in suspense. All four actors have personally struggled with the same conflicts as they rose to fame.
“I believe if you’re raised that way, you owe something to the people who helped you get there,” says Odom Jr. “I’m sure you can raise yourself in some industries, but my industry doesn’t ‘not one of them. In my case, a community of people uplifted me and pointed me in the right direction and made sure I stayed on track – teachers, mentors, a loving family. So I think, you know, who do I owe a debt to? And thanks in no small part to the Black Lives Matter movement and the work they have done in recent years, we are able to tell the truth about our experience now. I have a responsibility to be more honest about this, and telling the truth about it is the first step.
Leslie Odom Jr in a night in Miami

(Patti Perret / Amazon Studios)

The weight of responsibility also goes further. In one scene from the film, Malcolm berates Brown for portraying “sacrificial niggas” in the movies and urges him to aim higher. Hodge says he sympathized with the challenges Brown faced in the theater world. “You have to know your worth,” he explains. “What is most important is what you say no to, because saying yes to some things could actually set you back 10 years. Saying no to good things can put you in a [better] position and help you build your legacy. Every job is a calculated decision, and along your way there will be so many people who are going to challenge you and try to convince you that you are making the wrong choices. So sit down in your truth. When you post something, it’s there forever. So you better be proud of it.
He and his co-stars are incredibly proud of One night in Miami …, although Odom Jr expresses some nerves that he has finally been released into the world. He says he will only be able to relax once he knows the public has adopted him. ” Hamilton was a similar experience, ”he recalls. “There weren’t any exploded champagne bottles until we knew what people were going to think.” It echoes the vibe on set, with the actors in their own silent bubbles, largely staying in character. “I feel such a kinship with these brothers because we all had a similar way of working,” continues Odom Jr. “You approach this job with the seriousness and gravity it deserves, and the pleasure comes only after having does the job. ”
“We are really weird!” he adds. “You take a very stupid profession very seriously for six or seven weeks and then you can go stupid again.”
One night in Miami … releases Friday January 15 on Amazon Prime

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