leslie odom jr

Leslie Odom Jr. shines as Sam Cooke

A Change is Gonna Come: Philly’s Leslie Odom Jr. portrays Sam Cooke in “One Night in Miami.”

Last year around this time, I was interviewing Philly’s Tony Award-winning actor and singer Leslie Odom Jr. for any number of things. His new jazz-soul album, Mr. and its accompanying shows. The fact that the legendarily filmed version of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton had been purchased by Disney for cinematic debut in 2021. That he had wrapped filming The Sopranos’ sequel (The Many Saints of Newark).

Leslie odom jr

Obviously, Covid shifted the times and dates of everything from his Mr. tour to how and when the filmic Hamilton would debut. There was one thing he talked about though, as he was down in New Orleans, that was going as scheduled. And alive as the occasion he was remembering. “I’m down here playing Sam Cooke in this film for Regina King,” said Leslie Odom Jr. of King’s directorial debut, One Night in Miami. “It’s about the night of a Cassius Clay fight in Miami. Where his friends, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke came to see him win.”

Along with telling me that the script, his co-stars and his director were amazing. “And the clothes, the sharpest.” What Odom Jr. couldn’t quite put into words is how subtly the film looks into the quiet, and not so quiet, revolution that each man evolved into. Regarding Black civil rights, self-determination, necessary change, “by any means necessary,” to quote Malcolm X. And the empowerment needed to build a better, more equitable future.

One Night in Miami had to speak those words, images and lyrics for themselves.

The film, laced with Cooke’s music as sung by the dramatic, mellifluous Odom Jr., wasn’t just about each man’s rise through 1964. It was about their changes and how their changes that were “gonna come” in accordance with each man’s drive and position in his respective field.

Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) through Black power and the soon-to-come understanding of Islam’s true tenants. Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and his determination to forge his own way beyond football into the career path of his choosing (and “one better on the knees”): Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) and his spiritual path beyond the slave name given him, while building his own career beyond the boxing ring. And Cooke, a man accused, by X, yet, of pandering to white audiences of the time, without the consideration of his own business savvy that not only positioned him as the owner of his songs. But a publishing out that saw other Black songwriters benefit.

Leslie Odom jr

Not one of them has come to these realizations or truths easily. Those travails are witnessed in the film’s first scenes, with each man wrestling with the ugly truths of racism. And, in X’s case, the contradictions of his initial Nation of Islam’s religion’s hierarchy. They struggle with each other’s ways and means, frank conversations near fisticuffs, at the post-fight hotel hangout when Clay kicked heavy weight champion Sonny Liston’s ass at the Miami Convention Hall. But come out of the conversations richer men, even if two of them wouldn’t live to see their progress. And the effect they had on all who walked their paths. Cooke was killed later that same year. X was assassinated twelve months later.

Unlike most biographical films of historic proportions, “One Night in Miami” does hammer you over the head with overconfident achievement. Even though its quick to remind you what each man wrought. Instead, it’s language and exposition is as supple and subtle as each actor’s portrayal. A sympathetic screenplay written by Kemp Powers, based on his stage play of the same man. Seriously, none of these actors will win Best Supporting Actor. Because each should be nominated, and would surely cancel each other out.

That said, Odom Jr, really and truly shines. With all pride, flash, hurt, swagger, artistic pride and doubt, and soul, rolled up into one sharkskin suited performance by Philly’s own. And if that wasn’t enough, “Speak Now,” a new track performed and by co-written by Odom and Sam Ashworth, spiels over the end title credits. In reference to the currency of civil rights struggles and pleas and demands for human dignity, while referencing Cooke’s own classics, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

A better, more vibrant and soulful soliloquy of justice, love and desire, spiritual and social , you won’t find. Buy this soundtrack on ABKCO, now. Not only for Odom’s approximation of Cooke’s bittersweet and quivering tenor. But, for Odom’s own self-penned and glorified reverie of hurt and hope. And check out “One Night in a Miami” at Amazon Studios/Amazon Prime, at the Ritz Five and The Colonial Theatre on January 15.


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