Maybe an actor can have more than one role of a lifetime.
Though he’s way too much of a team player to say so, Leslie Odom Jr. — already famous for his Tony-winning role as Aaron Burr in Hamilton — gives the standout performance in the new movie One Night in Miami, directed by Regina King.
Set in February 1964 just after Cassius Clay claimed the world heavyweight title by beating Sonny Liston, it is writer Kemp Powers’ informed conjecture (based on his play) about discussions that might have occurred during an actual post-fight get-together among Clay (Eli Goree), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Odom).
The movie streams starting Friday on Amazon Prime Video and will be playing at the Ritz Five and at Phoenixville’s Colonial Theatre.
Though loosely structured around Clay’s decision to follow Malcolm X into the Nation of Islam as Muhammad Ali, the film really comes alive in fiery exchanges between Cooke and Malcolm X, who demands to know why the singer has not leveraged his pop stardom for the cause of racial justice.
Ben-Adir and Odom both cut their teeth as actors on the stages of the West End and Broadway, so their candid, vivid exchanges in One Night in Miami are as electric as the Clay-Liston bout that opens the movie.
“Coming from the theater the way Ben and I do, you’re used to fighting for the hearts and minds of people,” Odom said. “So we were, as Malcolm and Sam, going at each other with everything that we’ve got.”
Smartly scripted by Powers and ferociously acted by Philadelphia native Odom, One Night becomes a bracingly relevant discussion about what Odom calls a “trick bag” — the uniquely thorny ethical problems of Black performers in a country where popular art must coexist with commerce and its inevitable compromises.
Cooke — a business and artistic savant who owned his own music (and licensed American blues music to the Rolling Stones) — understands this well. Nevertheless, he’s stung when Malcolm X spins a vinyl recording of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and demands to know why a white kid from Minnesota wrote what had become a quintessential civil rights and counterculture song.
Can Cooke summon the will to write something just as good?
Cooke fans know the answer, and can probably guess the name of the song that provides the emotional crescendo of the movie, performed by Odom.
The role is so well suited to the 39-year-old star — an actor and singer who is fluent in Cooke’s core influences of gospel, American songbook standards, jazz, and pop — that it’s a shock to learn he resisted taking it for a couple years.
“I ran away from it because I didn’t understand it on its face. What I thought was that it would be a bad idea for me to do some Sam Cooke biopic. For so long in your career, when you’re starting out as an actor or singer, all people want to do is slap a label on you, and they want to do it as fast as they can,” said Odom, who has played historical figures like Burr and, in Harriet, the Philadelphia Underground Railroad leader William Still.
“For me, after Hamilton, I felt like it was the first time in my career that I’ve carved out a tiny bit of space for people to allow me to roam,” he said. “I wanted to be the first and best and only Leslie Odom Jr. and not a carbon copy of a carbon copy of one of my heroes.”
The more he learned about Cooke, though, the more intrigued he became. While Cooke put forth the polished public image of an easygoing mainstream singer, he was in private dealings a defiant and edgy character.
He reminded Odom of someone.
“I was not the easiest to deal with as a young kid. I was a handful,” Odom said. ”I was a young Black kid with some confidence in himself and his abilities, and even not that long ago, 20 or 25 years ago, that rubbed some people the wrong way.
“Part of the lesson of my life is making peace with that side of myself, learning how to work with people., to …. mature, and let some of those old habits go,” said the actor, who grew up singing in the church choir at Canaan Baptist in Germantown and graduated from the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. He’s now married to Nicolette Robinson and expecting a second child in March. Their daughter, Lucille Ruby, will be 4 in April.
Odom was amazed by Cooke’s astounding self-confidence — fronting the world-famous gospel group the Soul Stirrers as a teen and soon making the move to full-time pop star.
“This was the number one gospel group in the country. That Sam would have the confidence to be the lead singer, with these grown men behind him and these young women falling into the aisles because of his voice — to have that belief in your approach as a teenager and then to leave it all behind because he felt there was more he had to say … then starting his own labels and owning his own masters, this was unprecedented stuff,” Odom said.
“And you don’t get a list of accomplishments like Sam Cooke had by being … easy to deal with all the time. I actually loved learning that about him, and I felt a connection to him.”
Odom infuses all of this into his embodiment of the character on screen, so we understand why, in One Night, Cooke reacts with wounded pride when challenged by Malcolm X. That candor, Odom said, is put there by Powers, who used these famous characters to give public voice to the kinds of conversations Black people often have in private.
“Kemp has said these are the kinds of conversations that he was having in his dorm room at Howard,” Odom said. “These are the conversations as a child that I witnessed my parents have with their friends about the responsibilities of the Black person in this country — your reckoning with capitalism, with the idea of exceptionalism.”
As Odom has acquired fame and fortune, those questions didn’t get any easier, another reason he said he was able to connect with Cooke.
“There is also a reckoning with the ways in which a few of us have been allowed to walk through that door, and then we’re used to shame anyone who hasn’t had the opportunities that we’ve had. You hear that argument: Well, there is equality for all because look at the five people who have found success. Why can’t the rest of you do it?
“You know, it’s a real trick bag that you can find yourself in as a successful Black person in America, let alone a Black person in America who struggles.”
Though not a musical, One Night does have music. Odom, as Cooke, sings three songs, and they may hit a particularly resonant note with Americans who experienced Cooke in real time and will understand why it’s so funny to see him trying to connect with a white audience by covering Debbie Reynolds’ “Tammy.”
Incidentally, the songwriter’s jealousy that Cooke had toward “Blowin’ in the Wind” — that’s essentially true, Odom said. “He loved that song. He recorded it. That is how much he loved. it. And he was a little embarrassed: Why don’t I have my own song that can be an anthem of the resistance?”
So it hurts “when Malcolm pulls the record out and says, ‘What you haven’t done is really speak to your people. You haven’t gone on record with the greatest instrument you have, your voice. You’re leaving that to this young folksinger,’ ” Odom said.
Cooke of course goes on to write “A Change Is Gonna Come,” the enduring classic that was quoted by Barack Obama on the night he won the presidency and was performed at his first inauguration.
The singer’s ability to bring themes of racial justice movingly and effectively to a mass audience was another hook for Odom.
“My favorite quote about art is that the artist spends his entire life trying to get back to the place where your heart was first opened up,” he said.
His own moment of revelation was seeing the musical Rent when it came to Philadelphia. “This was a piece of art that was culturally relevant and artistically engaging and commercially successful. I thought they were all supposed to be like that!” he said.