Seven years ago, playwright Kemp Powers made his debut at the Rogue Machine Theatre in Los Angeles with “One Night in Miami.” The drama centers on the 1964 night in Miami after Cassius Clay wins the Heavyweight Championship of the World. However, the boxer can’t celebrate in Miami Beach because of racist Jim Crow-era segregation laws, so he ends up spending the night with his three best friends at the Hampton House Motel in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood.
Powers’ screen adaptation of his play, directed by Emmy and Oscar-winning actress Regina King in her behind-the-camera debut, vaults four rising stars into the awards fray. Vying for Best Actor is Gotham award-winner Kingsley Ben-Adir (“The Comey Rule”) as Malcolm X; competing in the crowded Supporting Actor category are Leslie Odom Jr. (“Hamilton”) as pop crooner Sam Cooke, Aldis Hodge (“Clemency”) as football star Jim Brown, and Eli Goree (“Ballers”) as Clay, soon to become Muhammad Ali.
In this video interview (above), IndieWire moderator Tambay Obenson talked to these four men about how they pulled off the challenge of turning a talky play into compelling cinema. The characters debate their missions as powerful Black men in racist, segregated America, and the film shows the icons not as they present themselves in public, but relaxing behind closed doors.
At age 28, the restrained and controlled Brown is ready to jump to Hollywood, and acts as a conciliator with older Nation of Islam activist Malcolm X, who is pushing 22-year-old Clay to become a Muslim, and exhorts the defensive Cooke to get more serious about placing messages in his hit songs.
“You just cast actors you trust who have similar expectations as you, and want to embody these icons,” King said in a Zoom interview. “All four actors never at any point wanted to do an imitation or impersonation. They went into their minds and hearts and bodies and souls.”
King said her cast of alpha males were grateful that she asked them to tune in to their soft sides and remain emotionally honest. “I always stressed to them, remember the humanity,” she said. “People who see pictures of [these icons] think they know them. We haven’t really explored the themes behind the image to take the time to capture those vulnerable moments that every human has, that men more often than women are not comfortable with exposing. It was constantly not playing the obvious beat but the nuanced moments.”
“One Night in Miami” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.