Francine Jamison-Tanchuck on portraying the friendship of Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Cassius Clay and Sam Cooke through costume design in Regina King's film directorial debut.
For her feature film directorial debut, "One Night in Miami," Oscar and multi-Emmy-winning actor (and seasoned television auteur) Regina King had one overall vision for the titular evening in 1964, which saw four historical, cultural and civil rights figures come together.
Soul singer-songwriter Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.), Cleveland Browns fullback and actor Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Muslim minister and civil rights leader Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) converged in Miami to watch boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) take his first heavyweight world champion title, in a surprise win over Sonny Liston. Based on a play by Kemp Powers, who also wrote the movie's screenplay, "One Night in Miami" imagines what took place during the meeting (though it has been documented, not much is else known about it), staging a spirited conversation between Black men at the top of their professions on race, racism and their role in the civil rights movement.
"Ultimately, [King] wanted the feel of the four of them as friends; African American men that felt that they had a friendship together," explains veteran costume designer Francine Jamison-Tanchuck. "Because they knew all of the different problems and issues that were concerning men of color and they would come together, discuss that and also be friends and laugh and tease one another."
Jamison-Tanchuck has plenty of experience bringing history to life through costume — in Civil War epic "Glory" (which won Denzel Washington an Oscar), "The Temptations" TV mini-series, Tupac Shakur biopic "All Eyez on Me" and most recently, Michael B. Jordan's biographical drama about civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, "Just Mercy." She also costume designed classics like "White Men Can't Jump," "Boomerang" and the pilot of "The Wire," and previously worked with King on the 2007 holiday movie, "This Christmas." (The two share another connection through close friend and fellow designer Sharen Davis, who just won an Emmy for the pilot of "Watchmen.")
"It was a symphony of all of us coming together and Regina was the conductor," Jamison-Tanchuck says of King asking her to come on board for her first feature and the close team collaboration and environment on set.
Jamison-Tanchuck used distinctive suits to cohesively bring the men together for their evening at the Hampton House Hotel in Overtown, just outside of Miami, following the boxing champ's unexpected win. (A few weeks later, he'd announce joining the Nation of Islam and changing his name to Muhammed Ali.) "These guys, his friends, came together to give him a congratulatory party in a way, because no one else was doing it," she explains. "That's how they all really came together in Miami, in this one room, to just congratulate their friend."
Setting the scene in the lime green-hued hotel room, Malcolm X, in his understated dark suit, white point-collar shirt with subtle diamond texture weave and narrow tie, goads Jim: "Why don't you try on a bow-tie?" Jim, meanwhile, in a pristine three-piece suit, crisp button-down collar shirt and diagonal wide-stripe tie, retorts, "You ain't gonna ever going to catch me dressed up as one of your soldiers." He then goes after Sam's penchant for colorful lustrous suiting. ("That cheap purple suit you wear.")
Jamison-Tanchuck carefully researched the group's professional backstories, but also took inspiration from their family backgrounds and personal interests, asking herself: "What is it that they really liked to do as people and just everyday guys?"
"Malcolm X was really into music — a lot of people really had no idea," she says. "When Malcolm X's name is mentioned, it's always feeling that it's some type of aggression, aversive, subversive or whatever the case may be. But he would attend Sam Cooke's concerts, and there were times that Sam Cooke never knew that he was there."
Like how Sam's bolder suits illustrate his showbiz background, Malcolm X's uniform aligns with his professional and spiritual intentions. "He wasn't really a fashion icon, so it didn't matter many times that he wore suits or clothing that were two, three, sometimes almost half a decade old," Jamison-Tanchuck notes. "It was about being clean and business-like and having an opportunity to address his certain beliefs and the movement."
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Ben-Adir — who's having a banner year with roles as romantic interests ("High Fidelity," "Love Life") and historical figures (including President Barack Obama in "The Comey Rule") alike — embraced his costumes, while throwing himself into a method approach, according to the costume designer: "Kingsley was just really wonderful, too, in being a helpful in having those things come about and trying not to have his ties or being too flashy."
For Clay, she studied archival photographs and footage, while exploring anecdotal real-life connections. "Cassius Clay, at the time, would love to go see Sam Cooke in recordings, and they would play around," Jamison-Tanchuck says. While illustrating this early crossroads period in the then-22-year-old's career and spirituality, she also infused his innate youthful charm and playfulness into the costumes — as well as the actor's. (Like Clay in real life, Goree — who plays Munroe "Mad Dog" Moore on "Riverdale" and Tammé's son on "Glow" — is the baby of the quartet.)
"[Clay] seemed to like those knit polo shirts a lot and I thought it would be really nice to incorporate that into this style for him to wear around his friends and when he was out of the ring," she explains, adding: "He loved wearing sporty shirts or things that would even show his biceps. So I wanted to relay that part in the costumes with Eli Goree, who was very much into it."
In 1978, while working in Las Vegas as a costumer on the Jane Fonda and Robert Redford film "The Electric Horseman," Jamison-Tanchuck actually met the real Ali, who was in town to attend a gala paying tribute to heavyweight champ Joe Louis. "He was in tuxedo then," she recalls.
She also worked with real-life Brown, considered to be the greatest running back of all time, on the 1987 sci-fi action movie "The Running Man." (Brown retired from the NFL in 1966 and continued his film career.) "I was an assistant then," Jamison-Tanchuck says. With her research and first-hand experience, she collaborated with Hodge on the portrayal of Brown's nature through his classic and refined tailored suiting.
"[Brown] loved three-piece suits, even as a young guy," she remembers. "I was kind of surprised that he would almost dress in a very studious in a way. So Aldis thought that was very much the character of Jim Brown."
Per the production notes, Cooke was Jamison-Tanchuck's favorite character to design, and she looked to childhood memories of the King of Soul's albums in her father's music collection. "Sam Cooke was the most fashionable of all the four," she explains. "The sharkskin suit was just so wonderful and indicative of the '60s. Leslie wore them well and Leslie just went with it."
For the evening, Cooke is the only one to wear a suit in a color in a berry hue, over a tonal pink button-down and with a rakish cravat, instead of a tie, like his friends.
In 1964, Cooke recorded civil rights anthem, "A Change is Gonna Come." He only performed the song live once, on "The Tonight Show," but the recording was lost to history. (He was shot to death by a hotel manager in December that year, under suspicious circumstances.) The movie reimagines the moment with Odom Jr. performing as Cooke — and with a costume homage to the late singer's musical career: Jamison-Tanchuck and King, with some input from the "Hamilton" Tony winner, decided on a version of Sam's signature suiting, accented with duplicates of cufflinks given to Cooke by the owner of the Copacabana. (The singer initially bombed at the famed Manhattan club, as also portrayed in the film, to triumphantly return and a record a live album, "Sam Cooke at the Copa.")
"Regina and I thought that what would be so fashionable for Sam to come in with his beautiful navy sharkskin suit and a nice white shirt with those cufflinks," says Jamison-Tanchuck, about the look (below). "It just said everything about Sam Cooke because his fashion taste and also his superb style and we wanted to carry that over and Leslie was just so open to it."
Odom, Jr. brought the set to tears while performing the sequence. ("To hear Leslie sing," sighs Jamison-Tanchuck. "Oh my gosh. Oh my goodness. Incredible.") "A Change is Gonna Come" also speaks to actively making a difference for the next generation — an essential message of the film that especially resonates in 2020.
King wrote, in the production notes: "There are so many artists who are women and people of color out there who aren't getting an opportunity to work because of how they were born. I feel like if I am in a position that I can create an opportunity for someone that normally wouldn't get it — but actually deserves or qualifies for it or has done the work — it is in a lot of ways my responsibility to do whatever I can to provide that. No one gets to a place of success without someone else providing an opportunity. There are a lot of people of color, a lot of women who are ready for the opportunity but just don't get it."
As a career change-maker, Jamison-Tanchuck, who's the first African American costume designer hired at Paramount Studios and Disney, is also paying it forward. Alongside friends and colleagues, Davis, Ruth E. Carter and Michelle Cole, she recently founded the Mildred Blount Scholarship Fund to create opportunities for young Black talent in costume design. Jamison-Tanchuck suggested honoring Blount, the first African American member of the Motion Pictures Costumers Union and Hollywood milliner, with the name of the non-profit.
Jamison-Tanchuck hopes viewers will walk away from "One Night in Miami" with the understanding: "They were men who experienced certain adversity and were still able to befriend one another and have one another and have periods of laughter and humor and look forward into the future," she says.
'One Night in Miami' opens in select theaters on Friday, Dec. 25 and streams on Amazon Primes on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021.