Regina King moderates a roundtable discussion with her One Night in Miami stars
It would sound like fiction if there weren't photo evidence, but on the night of Feb. 25, 1964, after Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) won his first heavyweight title, he celebrated with soul singer Sam Cooke, civil rights activist Malcolm X, and football star Jim Brown. Based on a play by Kemp Powers, Regina King's One Night in Miami… shows each of these legends at a turning point in his life, reimagining the conversations they had about fame, religion, and activism. On a Zoom facilitated by EW, King gathered her four actors to reflect on the making of the film, which is her feature directorial debut.
Watch the full Awardist Around the Table special above, and read on for excerpts of the fascinating conversation.
On the film's tragic undercurrent
REGINA KING: All of these men are young when we’re meeting them. When you received the script, knowing that both [Malcolm and Sam] are slain within a year of this moment, did that influence in any way your choices as an actor?
LESLIE ODOM JR. (SAM COOKE): I always stopped at the death. Sam died [that] December. I never, ever wanted to deal with December because December was not present in February. That is the great tragedy. I wanted him to be full of life in that hotel room: I got the world ahead of me. There’s so much that I want to accomplish. I never wanted that tragic coda to be present.
KINGSLEY BEN-ADIR (MALCOLM X): I agree. I remember the writing at the end of the script made a point of letting the audience know what Jim and Cassius were doing, and then [that] both [Sam and Malcolm] were dead. There was just something harrowing about understanding that going into it, that they were both gone before the age of 40.
On embodying icons
KING: I’ve watched this film more than anyone else, and I still find little nuances in things that each of you have done. What made you choose those specific things?
BEN-ADIR: It’s all the vibe of the man. There’s definitely a lightness and slenderness about him. Such a huge part of the joy of getting to play Malcolm was being able to study the physicality, and then try and do it without it being an impersonation or a caricature.
ALDIS HODGE (JIM BROWN): I remember, Regina, you pointed out to me that I was walking different in one [scene]. I didn’t realize, and I looked at the shot and was like, “Oh yeah, there’s a little different bop to it.” We’re also in the ’60s, where there’s this different vibe about how we move and how we come up. There’s a different pace with everything.
ELI GOREE (CASSIUS CLAY): I was really influenced by [Aldis’] physicality. It’s funny that you said that, because that was one of the things that, when I was on set, I would often pay attention to — how you act, how you walk, carry yourself. I even mentioned it to Regina.
ODOM: A key piece in my education was Sam at the Harlem Square in 1963. The record company held [on to] that concert recording for decades after he’d left us, because they didn’t approve of that version of Sam, of who he gave himself permission to be in front of a Black audience. That was a bridge to the way he might speak and the way he might interact, a link to a side of him that we didn’t know as well. Because all the footage that we have of Sam is him, respectfully, I say, performing for white folks.
On the film's current-day resonance
KING: A discovery that I’ve made throughout this process was that initially, when I read Kemp’s play, what attracted me was that these men represented all of the Black men in my life who I know and love. [From] going through the whole process of playing your characters to seeing the final product at the time in life we’re in right now, has anything changed for you?
GOREE: [My] second audition scene, I had to do it a couple of times. The note I believe was about not trying to do anything in the scene. Just really talking to [Sam] in the midst of everything that’s happening, and connecting with your friend, having that real moment of realizing this is where we’re at, this is the position we’re in, and this is the world we’re in. Now, how do these words come out? I remember it was difficult for me at the time. I took the note, but not quite the way I wanted to. You maybe saw that I had the potential to get there.
When we actually [filmed that scene], it was after the pandemic hit; we had to do a pickup. It was after George Floyd and all these things happened. Everything I was saying in that now felt different. I was able to say those words in that scene… because I was living it now.
HODGE: When coming to the film, I knew that [it] had potential for purpose. Watching the film later, the conversations hit so much differently. It made me feel verified and validated that we are doing our part and serving a purpose for the time now. Having you, Regina, as our leader on this is the most appropriate way to go about it. Some may see this film and see Black men and only think about the Black man’s experience, when in actuality, we’re representing the totality of the Black experience, especially in America. It’s not singularly just the Black men; we are led by a Black woman.
In my experience, in this country, we, as Black men, have been most protected by the Black women. So for our sisters, this film is about y’all, too, an acknowledgment of y’all, too. The strength that we exhibit on screen, part of that is the strength that we get from y’all.
One Night in Miami... hits select theaters Christmas Day, and launches Jan. 15 on Amazon Prime Video.
For more from EW's January issue, including our Entertainers of the Year and Best & Worst of 2020, order a copy or find it on newsstands now. (You can also pick up the full set of six covers here.) Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
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