AlloCiné met the screenwriter of One Night In Miami (Amazon Prime Video), as well as the interpreters of Cassius Clay / Mohamed Ali, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke to talk about representations, historical figures and tolerance.
AlloCiné: Why this film and what difficulties did you encounter in writing the screenplay?
Kemp Powers: I have always been fascinated by this “magical” and real meeting, this night of transformation, especially for Cassius Clay who will then become Mohamed Ali. But it was also moments of truth for Malcolm X, footballer Jim Brown and singer Sam Cooke who spent that night together at a motel in Miami on February 25, 1964 in the wake of Clay’s victory over Liston as he was only 22 years old. For me, these men have always been heroes of my youth. I had to write a script based on real facts but which takes certain liberties with the various conversations they had in this motel. Because obviously there were no recordings of their words and I could only imagine the content of their exchanges according to what was happening at that moment in their life and in an America still in full racial conflict. What’s interesting is that the conversations they must have had that night would have been almost the same if they had them today. As black men it is still the same debates as today about racism and the lack of justice. The greatest difficulty was not to turn these “giants” into historical clichés. I didn’t want to put in their mouths all the tirades attributed to them as with Ali, “I am the tallest !I also didn’t want to show Malcolm X in full fury like speaking at a political meeting. I wanted to show the ‘private’ side of these public figures. I wanted to show their vulnerability and the intimacy of their souls.
Eli, how does one become Cassius Clay alias Mohamed Ali?
Eli Goree: For me what was important was to understand where he came from. From Louisville, Kentucky in the 1940s, where we weren’t kind to black men. I also had to find a language coach to learn the way he spoke. Then I trained to learn how to box as well as possible. I took classes with the Creed movies coach. It was a slow and cruel process. It’s not easy to pretend to be the greatest boxer of all time. In the end, I really felt like I was becoming a different man. I hope I pay tribute to Cassius Clay with this film.
And you, Leslie Odom, how do you become this giant of soul, Sam Cooke?
Leslie Odom Jr: I had the chance to listen to his music and immerse myself in his fascinating life through writings and documentaries. I think it’s by listening to his music, so subtle and deep, that you can understand who he was. It is his music that allowed me to put myself in his skin. I gained even greater respect for Sam when I realized the revolutionary impact he had on showbiz. I didn’t even know he was one of the first black artists who had his own music label, and this long before Motown. Sam gave so many black artists a chance that it was a real inspiration to me. My biggest challenge in becoming Sam Cooke was learning to sing like him. I really thought I was going to let me mimic Sam and put her voice in post-production, but the director, Regina King, insisted that I sing her songs myself. Hope I did well!
Aldis, how do you become Jim Brown, this giant of American football?
Aldis Hodge: Beyond studying Jim Brown’s life during the ’60s, I also sought to find out what friendship linked him to the other three protagonists of that legendary night: Malcolm, Clay and Cooke. I discovered a deep respect between these men and it was invaluable information to give more humanity to my character.
How does this story resonate with today’s events?
Kemp Powers: I think that a black artist or athlete always has the same social responsibility towards his community. You may be American, if you are Afro you will always be seen first as black and then as American. Even though you might think that skin color doesn’t matter, in truth it still does in the US. Someone will never say: “I just ran into this American “ But “I just ran into this black guy!“. And I think it’s the same in the rest of the world as in France or elsewhere. It can be difficult to live in a country that you love but which doesn’t necessarily love you the same way. what is addressed in One Night In Miami and it is what is still happening today in our society.
This man, so hot-tempered and passionate, was also a daddy who couldn’t help calling his daughters home to tell them how much he loves them.
Eli Goree: I think it’s a film that invites, more than ever, to accept the humanity of others and to go beyond appearances and differences of race, religion, etc. I think Cassius wanted to be a free man. Free to be who he wanted to be and to believe in what he wanted to believe. This notion of freedom to be, to think, to believe, resonates more than ever today, it seems to me. Another aspect of the film that also resonates is that of perseverance. How you have to constantly fight in life to make your dreams come true. Watch how Cassius, Malcolm, Jim and Sam had to face all the hardships of their time and how their persistence and patience ended up paying off. You should never give up anything in life and always go for it. We must keep the faith and know how to get up despite the falls that we risk having on the way of life.
Leslie Odom Jr: For me, it is Malcolm’s words that still resonate today and that set the tone for that magical night of 1964 in Miami: what is your responsibility in life, what is your mission? What can you do about the issues around you that you are facing? And, have you really done all you can do to make a difference? I think that, more than ever, we must be in action and at the service of others.
Aldis Hodge: I think it’s the theme of personal fulfillment that still resonates today. Like these men who had accomplished so much but who had a night of revelation, of transformation. We must always know how to reinvent ourselves, transform ourselves to become the person we deeply want to become. This is the great difficulty of life, to find oneself and to fulfill oneself fully. And then it is the theme of the responsibility that you can have with your family, your community. These are therefore important themes and, more than ever, topical.
During your research, what did you find out about these “childhood heroes” that surprised you?
Kemp Powers: There is so much that I have learned from my research on them. Notably how Sam Cooke had an incredible impact on music show business and how he changed it. By educating, for example, other singers to control the “master” of their music and to keep these rights in order to be able to live on their royalties. I also discovered that Malcolm X was a caring father who hid little notes in his household books for these children to find. It’s amazing to learn how this man, so angry and passionate, was also a dad who couldn’t help calling his daughters home to tell them how much he loves them. It was all the human side of these men that I discovered and that really surprised me.
Did this film transform you as a man, as an actor?
Eli Goree: It made my religious faith even stronger. Ali was a Muslim and I am a Christian. Having Ali as an example of someone who has never apologized for being a Muslim also gives me the strength to say that I love Jesus and that I believe in him. For me it’s a matter of honesty.