If you don’t believe these four men are the best of friends, you won’t believe the movie. That’s the primary challenge, among many others, for the four leads in Regina King’s feature directorial debut “One Night in Miami.” It’s a surprisingly humorous film—predicated on the revealing conversations these men instigate—about friendship, life-altering transitions, and the shared hope for Black liberation.
Adapted by Kemp Powers’ from his play of the same name, “One Night in Miami” follows four of the biggest Black megastars of the 1960s: Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr), as they celebrate Clay’s 1964 victory over Sonny Liston for boxing’s heavyweight title. Each man arrives at the Miami hotel room at a crossroad in their life. Clay is on the verge of converting to the Nation of Islam while Malcolm is on his way out. Brown must decide between either a movie or football career. Cooke considers the price of mainstream, or white-decided, chart success.
The film’s main setting, a motel room, is a metaphorical barbershop. Jokes run freely, and Powers’ script is filled with the type of one-liners you’d never let a stranger get away with. The topics that come to bear hit with less ease. Flared tempers warm verbal blades to a heat that cuts so deep, with such precision, it would only be tenable if the men were the closest of friends. King sidesteps biopic artifice and thoughtfully guides her actors, with the quartet of Odom Jr., Ben-Adir, Hodge, and Goree achieving a level of comfort that makes us wonder aloud if they weren’t long-lost brothers. Their solidarity is not only tangible off the screen, it’s unbreakable as well.
In a loose yet spirited discussion, RogerEbert.com spoke to the four leads of “One Night in Miami,” about the power of having Regina King as their director, the importance of playing these historical figures, and the bonds each actor shares with one another.
“One Night in Miami” is heavily dependent upon camaraderie the four character share. How did you translate that closeness in the script on-set?
ALDIS HODGE: I appreciate you noting that. We didn’t have a lot of prep time. It was simply: get to work. What you saw were a lot of artists who are dedicating themselves to their roles and we really tried to bring that out. So it was a mad dash. We stayed in a constant mode of hustle and doing the research and making sure that we were really dialing into these characters because we know how important this movie really is.
KINGSLEY BEN-ADIR: I was just going to say, I like this free flowing conversation. What’s the truthful answer for that? Leslie. Cause we get asked that a lot. People ask, “How’d you not play a caricature?” Well, I don’t know. Was it just fluke?
LESLIE ODOM JR.: I mean, sure. You can’t take credit for all of it. Some things do come together and it’s a miracle whenever that happens. But I think there was great care taken in vetting. It wasn’t just about can you act. It was about a certain kind of approach, a certain kind of humanity and humility. Because it wasn’t an accident. Regina and quite frankly, you [Kingsley], because early on you had so much material, we were just sitting in that hotel room, and you were so collaborative. You guys set the tone. Your process, the way you were working, and also your openness to have conversations about what was working, and what wasn’t working; it set the tone. I’ve been in situations on movies, and on projects, that were not as lovely as this set.
ELI GOREE: It’s funny we all have different opinions. Cause I really felt like it was Regina and you, Leslie. I’m not even joking. You’ve already been part of a huge franchise yet your humility and coolness, and your ferocity to fight for the things you needed to fight for. There was never a feeling of “I’m sitting next to Tony award-winner” or “I’m sitting next to Oscar winner, Regina King.” When you guys came in as serious, humble, and willing to listen and willing to take things in, it set a tone. For me it was like, “Okay, this is the tone. This is the vibe. This is how the team is. This is how the team is running. Let me get up to speed.”
It’s still rare not only to have a Black director, but also a Black director who’s as accomplished of an actor as Regina King. This is such a uniquely Black story, how helpful was it to have Regina as a director to turn to?
LO: Just to know that whenever she took that short walk from behind the camera to whisper something in my ear, she was going to offer me something that was a value to me. She was going to make me better. She would put me on a more honest path, a more entertaining path. She would offer me something that would not have occurred to me. That was the benefit of having, amongst the quadrumvirate, the fifth-drumvirate [laughs] she really was the other member of the crew. In a little band of brothers we had a sister.
By the way, everyone can chime in.
LO: Y’all better speak on Regina!
AH: It was so instrumentally helpful in every way possible. Here’s something that people don’t understand about the value of her being Black. She understands the meaning and the value of what we’re going through and how we’re going through it. You don’t have to go to her and say, “Hey, we wouldn’t do this because of X, Y, and Z. Or this is not normal in our culture.” You don’t have to explain that to her. With other directors, I find myself having to explain that quite often. And I’m down for the challenge, but for something like this, where it’s about the culture, and it’s for the culture—you need someone who’s going to understand the culture.
Then you also have Kemp Powers, this brother is brilliant beyond measure—shout out to Kemp for writing “Soul“—who gets it. He knows the tone of the conversation and how the conversation has to go in order for us to reach the potential of efficacy for the message. So it really does help so much when you have Black people telling a Black story.
KBA: I haven’t had the experience of working with someone who is as tuned into process [as Regina]. The calm she had, and how she knew when to come over and how much to say. I never felt bombarded. Sometimes you’ll have really good directors but they don’t really understand acting. There’s a certain language you need, otherwise the rest of the time you’re translating. With Regina, I never had to translate. She gives you a little push and a steer, and then you’re off. She got the best out of me. I’ve never felt so free on set.
AH: Kingsley did the research to present a different side of Malcolm. And Regina really focused on the vulnerability of these men. We get to show that here, and it just gives you a brand new respect for who they were and what they accomplished.
EG: I just want to reiterate everything these brothers are saying. For me, I had already dug into the Cassius role, which can be good and bad because this is a different story. She had a real clear vision of the story and the moment she was trying to tell. A lot of the direction that I got from her was, “Who am I in this story? Where am I right now?” Making sure you’re in the right movie. When you’ve got four different entities that could be their own film on their own, that ability to make sure everyone’s in the same movie is essential.
LO: Film is such a collaborative thing. Coming from the theater, I knew when somebody I admired was in the theater, I had some control over their experience that evening. With film I’ve learned, with the little over a handful of films that I’ve made, you really let that control go. Regina took care of us on the day. She took care of us in the editing room. What she’s given us back is so gorgeous. And in many ways better than I could have even imagined.
In “One Night in Miami” there are so many fly-on-the-wall conversations that we, as Black people, are used to having. The film is almost like a barbershop in a hotel room. How much weight did you feel trying to translate these frank conversations?
EG: I didn’t feel weight. Because weight to me is like a burden. I felt excitement. That’s the thing I loved so much about the script: It wasn’t the same old biopic. It didn’t start off as he was a child, somewhere, in some hard circumstance, and then he started to grow. In “Ali,” this night [February 25, 1964] happens in that film. But it’s here, and then it’s gone. That’s what you miss when you try to put someone’s life—like Malcolm X or Cassius Clay—into two hours. The beautiful thing about this is you can go on a deep dive and unpack a charged moment and see just how much life is in one conversation. For example, you could make a movie about the day Nelson Mandela gets out of prison. You can make a movie about his whole life, or you can make a movie about that one day because that’s enough for a movie. I reveled in the opportunity to be able to tell this story, which I think was necessary and beautiful.
AH: I didn’t really feel any weight. I felt elation. Part of my charge as an artist is to exhibit the things that people may not understand. Or to show the things that people do go through so they know they’re being recognized. For these kinds of conversations, I was happy because we get to show people what we be talking about. This is what goes on. And you cannot deny us.
You have a super-megastar singer, a super-megastar football player, and the heavyweight champion of the world. You have all of these men you would think are removed from any effects that the rest of us go through—but no; they go through the exact same thing. Their position in life, their money, and their influence means nothing when you stack that up against them being Black in America. People look at me speaking on issues and they say, “But you’re a successful actor.” First of all, we’re not even talking about that. We’re talking about the value my life has versus yours. It’s not the same. So stop denying it, especially when you don’t experience it.
KBA: As a working actor, so much of this job is just about treading water and trying to get the next gig. Other actors are probably interviewing all the time and analyzing the work. They’re in a very luxurious position at the top; where they get to decide what type of character they want to play. They’re shaping their careers. But for the rest of us, we’re just out here. So when this opportunity came, it was a very serious situation. It’s an opportunity to show Regina King your acting.
Sometimes casting directors, they look at your tapes first, and then they decide whether they’re good enough. But I was like, “I think Regina is actually going to watch these” because they’re really trying to find a Malcolm. That was a joy in itself. The weight of it was, yes, playing Malcolm, but also showing the work to Regina, and just getting to do what you’ve always dreamed about.
EG: I want to just second that. I get that question all the time. “What made you choose to take on this role?” It’s just so funny to me because that’s not the position I was in as an actor. To say, “Oh, I’m going to choose to pass on this Cassius Clay role …” No, no. You’re grateful to have the opportunity to audition for something like this.
It feels like every single day the importance of this movie is growing, especially as we’ve seen what’s happened over the last year. How has making this movie stuck with you on a personal and spiritual level?
LO: It was a clarifying experience. I didn’t know if the movie was going to do anything, if anybody was going to see it. This was before Amazon came on to support it. I just made a little independent movie. It was a similar experience to working on “Hamilton.” There was something that I suspected about myself. I know I’m not the only one. These brothers probably had similar experiences. It’s that thing when you’re growing up and you feel like, “I don’t know. I could do something special, if I was given the opportunity.” You’re watching your white brothers and sisters really tear it up and climb the ladder and you’re like, “Maybe I could be a contender?”
What Lin-Manuel gave a room full of Black and Brown people was the evidence. It wasn’t about proving it to the world, or to the audience, which I’m grateful we got the chance to do too, but we got to prove it to ourselves. Leaving “Hamilton,” I never had to question again what I was capable of. That’s a powerful thing to give somebody. That’s what Kemp gave us with this script. He laid down the gauntlet. Kingsley and I would talk about how this was our “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Kemp and Regina, they allowed us to prove something to ourselves. Before I knew anybody who was going to see it, I was like,” I think we did something special back there.”
AH: For me, there was professional growth. I studied Regina and her directing. Because at the time, I had acquired a short film that I was producing, and was set to direct, but then we got hit with quarantine. Still going to do it, but it was really just studying Regina.
On a personal level, I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of some projects that have influenced culture in magnificent ways. I feel it with this film yet again. I see how it’s been received thus far. The resounding response has been synonymous and consistent with people understanding that this is not a film that’s going to badger you over the head or tell you you’re wrong. This is a film about love, about empathy, about unity, and about building something. It’s about Black people. And it’s about these brothers.
KBA: I love what Kemp was saying yesterday about how he’s frustrated by so many people calling the film ‘timely.’ It was timely in 2013. It was timely in 2015. It was timely when this happened in London. It felt timely when I read it in the summer of 2019. Coming into this before the pandemic, before George Floyd, as a Black man, I understood how important the conversation in this film was.
I was so excited by the idea of being a part of something that I hadn’t seen before. That feeling can be kind of scary. But you’ve got to be smart and think outside the box and go, “No—that’s actually a good thing.” It’s like what Leslie said to me before, “They don’t make ‘em like this.” It was a really one-off opportunity. And … that does not answer your question at all.
LO: No, no. It’s really about the flow. The flow. [laughs]
EG: I’m enjoying what everyone’s saying. I forgot the question both times. These brothers are inspiring me, right now.
It was just about what you’ve taken away from making this film.
EG: Man, so many things. Personally, I have so much admiration for these guys. What they put up there, what they accomplished, the honor they gave to their characters, it’s amazing. Every day I wake up and there’s some new person who’s been touched by this film. I’ve never been a part of anything that resonates like that. People are watching this, and they’re messaging me saying that they cried, or they’re glad they got to see this.
KBA: It’s kind of overwhelming.
EG: Exactly. I’m still processing it. I started to get an inkling of that when I first started playing Cassius. I was staying in character down in New Orleans, and I saw the way people were responding to me.
People would give me things for free. “No—don’t worry about it champ. Can you sign this?” And I’d sign it, but they’d be like, “No, no—sign it as Cassius. Not as Eli.” Even if you’re just portraying him, it touches people in a special way. I know it’s true for all of these men. They had an impact in the world and they used their life to mean something for others. To be part of that legacy, to have some small attachment to that story, it’s something that I’m so proud of. And then to have the connection I have with Regina and with these guys on a personal level. These people are really important to me.
I saw a thing on the very last episode of “Seinfeld.” Seinfield said, before they went out to shoot, “From now on whenever anyone mentions one of us, they’ll always think of all four of us.” That couldn’t be more true than with this group of four. That’s a special connection that almost never happens.
“One Night in Miami” is now playing on Amazon. To read Odie Henderson’s review of the film, click here.