NEW YORK, Jan. 15 (UPI) -- Actor Aldis Hodge said his new film, One Night in Miami, honors the contributions of four Black American icons who were friends in real life.
Directed by Regina King, the movie is a fictionalized account of the night in 1964 when boxing champ Cassius Clay celebrated his epic win against Sonny Liston with civil rights leader Malcolm X, pro football player Jim Brown and pop music star Sam Cooke in a Florida hotel room.
"It's a wonderful celebration of these four men, a wonderful celebration of their friendship and of what they contributed to us as a people and, to a greater extent, to us as a country, because we all benefit from what they have given, what they have sacrificed," Hodge told reporters and film critics in a recent Zoom panel discussion.
Co-starring Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree and Leslie Odom Jr., One Night in Miami debuts on Amazon Prime Video on Friday.
Kemp Powers, who wrote the script based on his play, said he was thrilled with the ensemble's performances, especially since most of the actors met for the first time on the film's set, had little time to rehearse and worked on a tight schedule for production, part of which occurred during the coronavirus pandemic.
"I feel like I got to do a Black Big Chill -- something where the performances were all, honestly, to me, just flawless," Powers said.
Odom Jr. returned the compliment, saying Powers gave the actors the words and the confidence they needed to give the film their best.
"We got to come into that hotel room and, really, we were allowed to fly," Odom Jr. said.
The film is rooted in truth, although much of the dialogue is imagined.
"This night actually happened," Powers said.
"The next morning is the first time [Clay] announced to the press that he was a member of the Nation of Islam," Powers said. "That's what set it all off for me because, in very different ways, I've always viewed these four men as representative of -- the best way to describe it is -- a nascent Black Power movement."
At the time the film takes place, Clay was the youngest and least famous of the quartet.
"Cassius Clay, at 22 years old, has his three big brothers all trying to exert influence over him," Powers said.
For Goree, the role of Clay was a dream come true after he had trained for and auditioned to play the legendary athlete for another project, but didn't get the job.
"It was something I'd wanted to do for years," he said of playing Clay. "It was one of those 'preparation meets opportunity' things. I was very blessed."
Soon after the events of the film, Cooke was shot and killed by a motel manager who said he broke into her office and assaulted her. He was 33.
Malcolm X was assassinated at age 39 in 1965 and Clay, who would change his name to Muhammad Ali, saw his career stall for years after he refused to be drafted during the Vietnam War due to his religious beliefs in 1966. He died in 2016.
"1964 was a crucible year for all four men, so I was just trying to have this crucible moment be something that happened during these interactions with one another in a way that I felt was believable," Powers said.
Hodge called Brown a "business maverick" and said he was in a "transitional space of maintaining who he is, but also taking control of his power and his value" in 1964.
"He has been this mega-star football player, but he still knows how people see him and treat him," Hodge said of how Brown is portrayed in the film.
The actor hasn't yet met Brown, who is 84 and the only one of the four icons still alive.
"I see him as an entrepreneur and a businessman, so I wanted to understand his business acumen and mentality," Hodge said.
"I started studying that because, after this particular year, 1964, very soon after, he goes on to retire [from football], makes his transition into film and television. A few years later, he starts the Black Economic Union."
Hodge learned a lot about Brown from his research, but also from people around him who grew up admiring Brown for his philanthropic work and efforts to make peace between rival gangs.
"He's still teaching and still trying to push that positivity in the community," Hodge said.
The actor and his co-stars were eager to share with each other what they learned about their respective characters.
"These fellas went in," Hodge said. "Every single day, someone was bringing something new. It's like, 'Alright we're just going to class.'"
Ben-Adir said he tried to embody the human side of Malcolm X, a historic figure he described as a "fearless, incredible human being" and "a hero for so many people."
"I was trying to ingest all of the language and understand what Malcolm's place was within this story, structurally," Ben-Adir said, "and then try my best to understand what was going on at this time in Malcolm's life and find all the information I could to give me the courage to tap into his vulnerability."
Ben-Adir said he and the rest of the cast frequently checked in with King to make sure they were hitting the right notes when it came to the feelings they were expressing.
"I was so in awe of Regina, of what she did in terms of really piecing together the emotional journey and how she has cut the film. There were some days where I gave much more and she's pulled back and she's really constructed the performance in a way that I couldn't have guessed," he said.
Odom Jr. was reluctant to play Cooke and initially passed on auditioning for the role.
"I felt that there must be somebody somewhere that was more well-suited than I," he said.
"Every now and again someone sees something in you that you don't see in yourself and that was my experience with Regina, thank goodness."