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One Night in Miami, helmed by Regina King and based on the play Kemp Powers, is a fictionalized account of an actual meeting of magnetic minds.
On an evening in 1964, during a time of racial and civil hostility in the United States, an extraordinary quartet composed of Cassius Clay (known today as Muhammad Ali and portrayed by Eli Goree), human rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), musician Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and football star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) congregates to celebrate Clay’s newly-anointed title as world heavyweight boxing champion. But instead of heading out on the town, the group stay in Malcolm’s cramped Florida motel room to eat ice cream and candidly reflect on their personal changes and the country at large, inviting viewers in on their musings. One Night in Miami offers a topical look at issues that continue to resonate strongly in the 21st century, the power of celebrity, and the pros and cons of speaking truth to power.
The film also displays Black male vulnerability—an attribute not often centralized on camera—to show the importance of brotherhood during turbulent times and to humanize four towering historic figures. Perhaps one of the film’s strongest aspects is the sensitivity each actor brings to his role. Notably, Kingsley Ben-Adir’s take on Malcolm X comes with an understated complexity that's worthy of critical acclaim.
“So much of what I came to understand about Malcolm X was that the ‘lacerating demagogue’ that we all know is really a character that he slipped in and out of,” Ben-Adir tells BAZAAR.com over the phone, speaking about the civil rights dignitary who was assassinated by members of his former religious organization, the Nation of Islam, in 1965. “It wasn't the sum total of who he was.”
This marks Ben-Adir's most high-profile role yet, but the British thespian may already be familiar to some. He starred in Hulu’s High Fidelity alongside Zoë Kravitz and in Netflix’s The OA, and he’s made a name for himself in the London theater scene. He’s no stranger to playing historical figures, either. In 2020, he portrayed former president Barack Obama in Showtime’s political miniseries The Comey Rule.
Before our conversation really kicks off, Ben-Adir and I discuss the spirited talk I had with a loved one after watching One Night In Miami, including a heart-to-heart about Black economic freedom and colorism within the Black community, both of which the movie addresses. Conversations like these, Ben-Adir says, are what the film aims for.
“I think [One Night in Miami] raises lots of questions, and doesn't necessarily bang the answers over your head,” he explains. “It’s here to create discussion, and I'm just really glad that these discussions come naturally.”
Ahead, Ben-Adir delves into how he worked with director King to introduce a more vulnerable side of Malcolm X, the importance of showcasing Black male camaraderie on film, and what One Night in Miami may provide younger generations of moviegoers.
Given the gravity of One Night in Miami and the role you’re portraying, did you have any apprehensions when you first were approached for the film?
I think I was more excited than apprehensive. All of the nerves were around booking the job, and just desperately wanting to be a part of it. I was reading for Cash (Cassius Clay) originally, so when I first read it, I was trying to figure out how best I was suited to make [him] work. I couldn't get my head around it, I just felt disconnected to the character. I felt like there was a youthfulness and a jovial energy that someone else would be better suited to play. I said to my agents, “If anything happens to the actor playing Malcolm X, I'd love to audition for that role.” I was kind of half-joking as well, and then, four-and-a-half months later, that's what happened.
Once Regina cast me, I didn't really have any time to worry about the responsibility [of the role]—I just wanted to dive in and start working as soon as possible. I also thought it was really necessary in the audition process to convince Regina that I was excited and confident and up for the challenge, and that I understood who Malcolm needed to be in this movie. The turmoil that he was going through at this time is the heartbeat and center of this narrative. So, trying to find ways to explore Malcolm's humanity in a different light was something Regina and I really connected on. We kept checking in about emotional levels—trying to find the right balance with not going too far, but not keeping it too safe. He's such a hero for so many people, and we wanted to show that real heroism and real bravery is about feeling scared and still facing it, you know? [Malcolm X] must have felt fear, and he must have felt terror, yet he still went out there and fought for Black people and put his life on the line in such a huge way.
We've seen Malcolm X portrayed by actors so many times, but I think your rendition captured nuances that we haven’t been able to see on film. You made it your own, but you also captured the essence of who he was at his core.
Thank you so much. And I'll share with you, around  when Malcolm was being pushed out of the Nation of Islam and was beginning to think about starting his own organization, his life was really about to be in danger. Malcolm had said to [his friend, comedian and activist] Dick Gregory that he felt weak and hollow, and that no one knew the torment that he went through, which I just found mindblowing. I really held onto those words, and thought it was such a powerfully vulnerable statement to make. He was suffering in silence, and I thought that was our way in. I thought it was a route to try and create something more tender and potentially heartbreaking [in the film].
It definitely paid off. The film largely focuses on the importance of using your voice to create the change you want to see in the world, especially if you're in a position of power or visibility. As someone in the public eye, how do you make sure that your professional and personal choices are empowering to yourself and your community?
I found it really interesting watching Leslie and Regina, in particular, navigate this space. “Oh, God, they have huge followings. If they tweet something, a lot of people see it and read it…” It's been interesting to watch them operate in this media space that we're in. This is the first time that I'm embarking on this kind of level of press, so I’m absorbing it as we speak.
I guess what I'm saying is I still haven't really processed that I am someone in the public eye. Right now, I just feel very much like a working actor. My responsibility is to make sure that I find the truth and humanity of the characters that I am putting on-screen, and that I’m operating with decency and kindness as much as I possibly can in my own life and in the interactions that I have. I understand fully well that visual image. I’m being as generous as I can in terms of sharing information—if there's anyone from my community who needs help getting into drama school, I'm always available to give advice and help. I’m grateful for the situation I'm lucky enough to be in.
One thing that struck me in the film is that, although these men came from different walks of life, the portrayal of their brotherhood and community really showed their similarities. Did that also speak to you?
A hundred percent, that was everything. It was understanding that the heartbeat of this narrative was really to do with the love, the joy, and the friendship between the men, and watching four Black men—four Black, iconic historical figures—operating in friendship, in a room, and having a very private conversation publicly. I speak from my interpretation of Malcolm, and it was really important for me to make it feel like Malcolm was fully invested in all of the friendships. I wanted to make it feel like they all meant so much to him. There was just a mutual respect and love between all of them.
We also know that Black men are often postured to be these pillars of strength and masculinity. In the film, we saw these men being vulnerable with each other, crying and showing their emotions. I think that that was so important to portray.
When you read this movie, it’s clear that the only way it's gonna work is if the actors playing the parts understand that the love between the men is really at the center of it. Regina described the movie as a “love labor” for Black men, and I thought that was just the most wonderful guiding mantra for us coming into this.
While the film presents itself as history, we still have a long way to go given the conversations that we're having in 2021. What do you hope people take away from these parallels, whether they might be unaware that these issues are happening, or aware of the issues but haven't done anything to rectify them?
I hope that we've created something emotionally engaging enough that people listen to the words that we’re saying, and those words stay with them afterwards. Think about some of the conversations with Malcolm and Sam in particular, and start conversations of your own, just like you said. When we came into this conversation, and you said you enjoyed the film? I couldn't ask for more than that. It started conversations between you and your people afterwards about these difficult subjects that don't get enough time as far as I'm concerned.
A younger generation of people who maybe aren't familiar with Malcolm and these guys may look into them afterwards, or even people who thought they knew who Malcolm X was could now see a different side to him. I encourage going to Google and actually looking into the facts to see what was actually going on at the time. I've had a lot of people say “I had to go on Google and I didn't know that,” or “I didn't realize that.”
I'm going to make the last question nice and fun. The film’s use of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is obviously necessary both then and now. What are some of songs throughout history that you think have really stood the test of time in respect to America’s moments of social and racial unrest?
I'm going to tell you a couple of songs that mean so much to me from another American icon who I just love. It's Donny Hathaway. I’ll say [his version of] "He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” and “Thank You Master (For My Soul).” There was a period maybe five, six years ago where I was getting screen tested a lot, and I had Donny Hathaway on repeat—in fact, I'm going to put some songs on later! [Laughs] I love those tracks, and I didn't realize how young he was when he left us. There's no one quite like him.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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