The Black period pieces in this year’s awards race, from “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” to “Da 5 Bloods” and “One Night In Miami,” were made on sets and in editing rooms miles apart from each other.
But Leslie Odom Jr. hopes that as the world sees these films side-by-side, they will discover that they are parts of a larger statement about where America and the world is in the fight for equality.
“Films about the past are always about our present, and I think these films we’re seeing today, when put in the time capsule, will speak to what we are facing in 2020,” Odom told TheWrap. “We have to ask these questions about what we can use from the past. Sam wrote a song called ‘Change Is Gonna Come,’ and the question we had to ask when making this film was ‘Has that change come? And if so, for who? And if not, what do we have to do to make that change come?'”
Odom, who just earned two Golden Globe nominations for his performance and his original song in “One Night In Miami,” makes one of those connections in a monologue as R&B pop star Sam Cooke that connects to “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” In that August Wilson adaptation, Black artists like Viola Davis’ Ma Rainey and Chadwick Boseman’s Levee are callously exploited by the white establishment, culminating in a gutting final scene where one of Levee’s songs is played without passion by an all-white jazz band.
In “One Night In Miami,” set four decades after “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Odom portrays a passionate monologue in which Cooke talks about how he gave the Rolling Stones permission to cover “It’s All Over Now,” a song written by the Black band The Valentinos. Like in “Ma Rainey’s,” the cover by the white musicians sells far better than the original version by Black musicians ever could. Unlike in “Ma Rainey’s,” however, The Valentinos are able to reap a fortune in royalties thanks to Cooke’s record label.
When viewed side-by-side, the two films show how groundbreaking Cooke’s entrepreneurial achievements were for Black artists, and how much he was risking by challenging white authority the way Malcolm X wanted him to do.
Odom came into “One Night In Miami” with a deep respect for the risks Cooke took by speaking out, and it took him some time to really feel like he had what it takes to live up to that legacy despite his own incredible success on stage and screen.
“It took a while for me to believe in myself, to believe that there was a Sam Cooke within me that was worth showing in any way,” Odom said. “But as I fought for him through the work and as I protected him and his legacy through the work, I started to feel like while there may be some places where I fall short, I just started to draw closer to him. It just felt like I had a responsibility to fight for his choices in his life and his career.”
“One Night In Miami” is a meditation on what sort of conversations might have been shared between four Civil Rights Era icons – Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown – away from the cameras, as well as an exploration of the larger debate over the best way to fight for equality and the responsibility to speak out when fame gives one a louder voice. Odom himself has felt that responsibility for years, ever since he first took the stage as Aaron Burr in “Hamilton” and continuing to his work on this film, for which he wrote the Golden Globe-nominated song “Speak Now” with Sam Ashworth.
“Philando Castile was murdered just before I left ‘Hamilton,’ and I dedicated my final performance to him,” Odom said. “Because I knew that even in that moment, I knew that there were eyes on us in that show. We were always asking ourselves what our responsibility was to the moment and to the movement happening outside this theater?”