Picture this: it’s February 25, 1964 and young boxer Cassius Clay has just defeated Sonny Liston at the Convention Hall in Miami to become the World Heavyweight Champion. That’s cause for celebration, right?
Instead, the boxer would retreat to the Hampton House hotel in a Black neighbourhood in town with his famous friends, activist Malcolm X, musician Sam Cooke, and NFL superstar Jim Brown. Truly life-changing was the encounter that the very next day Clay announced he was converting to Islam and from then on would be known as Muhammad Ali. Four Black icons in one hotel room? Oh, to have been a fly on the wall of that historic gathering.
Well, the new film One Night In Miami gives us a fictional look into that real-life event, where the four trailblazers are imagined to have debated how to use their stardom to affect change in the Black community in the ’60s.
Writer Kemp Powers originally wrote it as a play, but actress Regina King has just adapted it for the big screen in her directorial film debut.
The 39-year-old portrays Sam Cooke in the film and is tipped to score nominations for Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Song for ‘Speak Now’, the movie’s soulful anthem Odom co-wrote and performed in the end credits.
READ MORE: What happened to musician Sam Cooke?
However, accolades are simply an afterthought for the star. In 2016, he won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his role in the Broadway juggernaut Hamilton and shared a Grammy win for Best Musical Theatre Album that same year.
Therefore, Oscar glory would bring Odom one step closer to EGOT status — an honour bestowed upon people who have won the grand slam of show business: an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Still, Odom’s focus is to give, not take.
“I only hope to be a part of things that are additive,” he tells 9Honey Celebrity as he promotes the film from LA. “Whether it’s in theatre, in music, in cinema, I want to be a part of things that add to a tradition of great storytelling.
“So to have been a part of something like One Night In Miami, which is just a miracle, to be a part of something like that is humbling and will be meaningful to me for many, many years to come.”
Stepping into the shoes of the legendary musician should be an easy feat for an actor of Odom’s calibre. After all, he is no stranger to playing historical figures — he portrayed Black abolitionist William Still in the 2019 film Harriet and played Caucasian former US Vice President Aaron Burr in the multi-racial musical Hamilton. But playing Cooke somehow terrified Odom.
“There’s quite a lot that comes with Sam Cooke. Sam Cooke still looms large in music history and in the Black community, so I just thought the shoes might be ill-fitting,” he admits. “There’s something about the international language of music that when you rock the world with a song that he wrote the way he did with ‘You Send Me’ or ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, you become sainted.
“But I’m just grateful that Regina saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. Because it was a transformative experience being one of the four guys in that room.”
One Night In Miami is indeed King’s directorial debut. The 49-year-old has forged a long and successful career, which culminated in her 2019 Oscars win for Best Supporting Actress for her role in If Beale Street Could Talk. But King is just as passionate about directing as she is about acting, Odom says.
“She’s just exceptional. She brought her same exquisite taste and her sensitivity and her nose for truth to her work behind the camera as she brings in front of the camera,” he explains.
“Every time she came to give me a note or a thought, she just always sent me down a more honest path, or a more entertaining path, that quite frankly she made me better.”
King also had faith in the film’s other stars, Kingsley Ben-Adir (who plays Malcolm X), Eli Goree (Muhammad Ali), and Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown), who were each just as captivating. Also cast in the movie is Odom’s wife, actress Nicolette Robinson, who plays his onscreen wife, Barbara Cooke.
“I’m so grateful that Regina saw in Nicolette what I know. She’s one of the best actresses working today, I really mean it,” Odom gushes of his wife of eight years. “I thought it was a fitting way to honour the love story of Sam and Barbara, who met in grade school, middle school. Sixth grade, I think, when they started dating.
“[Nic and I] we were able to draw on our long history together. Not so long as [Sam and Barbara’s] but we were able to lean into that comfort and ease with one another for these pivotal scenes.”
A pivotal scene indeed was between Odom and Ben-Adir, who in their respective characters as Cooke and Malcolm X debated political activism.
The famed minister was in favour of confrontational activism and argued Cooke was not using his celebrity platform enough to campaign for civil rights. In gripping scenes, Cooke explained that he favoured a more subtle approach.
So where does Odom stand in the debate?
“I think that if you are lucky enough to enjoy a privileged position in a lofty place of a society or community, you owe something to the people who helped you get to that place,” the actor says.
“I think we’re here to be of service to one another. So if you’ve been given a platform, if your work comes with a large megaphone or a bully pulpit or a chance to speak for someone, you owe it to the people whose hopes you rode on to get to wherever you are.”
In a tragic turn of events, Cooke was mysteriously killed in December that year, and Malcolm X was assassinated two months later in February 1965 — their deaths adding greater significance to that historic night they shared.
Muhammad Ali, who went on to become the greatest boxer in history, would later pass away in 2016. Meanwhile, Jim Brown retired from the NFL in 1966 to pursue a career in acting. He is the only remaining living member of the iconic four.
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No one will ever know what really happened or what words were exchanged within those four walls of the Hampton House, but Odom believes not many are worthy to have been in that same room.
“If I was in that room, I’d be a fly on the wall. I would sit at the feet of the kings and listen to the conversation,” he says, before joking, “Maybe if I could get a word in edgewise, it would be, ‘You guys need anything? Can I get you something to drink, so you can keep talking and I can keep soaking it up?’
“They lived such expansive lives and they had a lot of ground to cover. I wouldn’t dare say that I would have as much to contribute in that conversation as I’d hope, but there’s still time to make something of myself, make some good use for myself, and maybe one day I’d be worthy to offer something in that conversation.”
One Night In Miami premieres on Amazon Prime Video on January 15.