The image of “One Night in Miami’s” Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) huddled together in the Hampton House is an evocative snapshot of Black Power in 1964. The four friends came to celebrate Clay’s historic heavyweight championship defeat of Sonny Liston, but the night evolved into a soul-searching conversation about race, success, and social responsibility. Yet the strongest visual impression that director Regina King wanted to convey was that they looked like friends, which crucially carried over into the costume design of Francine Jamison-Tanchuck (best known for “White Men Can’t Jump” and “Glory”).
“When production designer Barry Robison and cinematographer Tami Reiker and I met with Regina, we discussed the color palette to know that it’s going to work for each character, and certain colors had to be considered because of their complexion,” said Jamison-Tanchuck. “We leaned more on how they were going to come together in that room [and against the wood paneling].”
They arrived at a lime-green palette with textured wallpaper and linoleum floors for the two-room suite. It was warm and friendly, and the perfect backdrop for screenwriter Kemp Powers’ metaphoric shadowboxing about Black masculinity. For Jamison-Tanchuck, though, creating the wardrobe for the four icons involved a blend of historical accuracy and creative intuition.
“Much of the research that we were finding was in black and white,” she said. “But sometimes the journalists described certain colors, and even in black and white, you get a certain sense of the colors because of the textures. And the colors that were prominent in that era, you envision that and then put in your own creative license.”
The slender Malcolm X was fairly conservative in his style of dress, given his prominence with the Nation of Islam and civil rights agenda. He wore black or navy suits with white shirts and dark, thin ties, and Jamison-Tanchuck selected a striking charcoal suit that was very textured. “He was not a clotheshorse, but he had a style of his own,” she added. “It was about the movement, and aspects of what he stood for.”
By contrast, Clay was the youngest of the group and the most “fanciful” dresser. “He was pretty much dressy-casual,” said Jamison-Tanchuck. “You see in footage how he seemed to gravitate toward polo shirts, and it was important for him to be comfortable while shadowboxing. So I thought the brown suit and green knit polo shirt fit well.”
Cleveland Browns running back legend-turned-actor Jim Brown was also a pretty conservative dresser. While working as an assistant on “The Running Man” in ’87, Jamison-Tanchuck observed firsthand that Brown (who co-starred as Fireball) preferred three-piece suits. “We had footage of him announcing the fight with Sonny Liston, and I thought it would be good to put him in a black suit with a sheen that stood out.”
Soul star Cooke, of course, was the most stylish and forward-looking dresser of the group. In terms of color ideas, there was performance footage to reference along with his colorful album covers.
“We thought a wonderful color for him was the burgundy shark-skin suit, and the coral shirt just adds to it,” the costume designer said. “So when you see them all together, Regina and I liked the blend. The cufflinks was pretty important for Sam. They weren’t what you call real flashy but they were tasteful. They were a replica of the ones given to him by the owner of the Copacabana. We thought it was very iconic for him to wear them on ‘The Tonight Show’ [where he debuted his masterpiece, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’].”
In addition to the strong bond that connected these four legends, the costume design serves as a mid-’60s cultural fashion statement as well: “I wanted to make sure that I was respectful to these gentlemen, through their costumes,” said Jamison-Tanchuck. “Whether people believed in their causes or agreed with them, it’s neither here or there. They still made a stamp on history. And they wanted to do something special for Cassius Clay, because no one believed that he would win this match, and nothing was provided for him. They were there to support him. This is what friendship should be about.”