Taken from Chapter 2 of Man About Town. Order your copy now.
Based on Kemp Powers’ award-winning 2013 play, One Night in Miami tells the fictionalised account of an evening shared by human rights activist Malcolm X, soul legend Sam Cooke, football player-turned actor Jim Brown, and boxer Cassius Clay (soon to become Muhammad Ali). The night was February 25th 1964, when, following Clay’s victory against heavyweight champ Sonny Liston, the group gathered in a hotel room — a meeting that, in Kemp’s reimagination, became a night of intense reflection and debate.
Making her directorial feature debut, Regina King guides us confidently through the conversation that ensues, as the four men ruminate on the direction of their careers, the responsibility of their influence, and navigating their stature in public consciousness and the civil rights movement.
Weaving together their internal conflicts and contrasting ideas with a delicate balance of tension and tenderness, King brings us into the intimacy of a moment that feels pivotal in not only each of their lives, but in the course of history. Exploring the nuances of Black masculinity and the intricacies of what it means to be Black in America, One Night in Miami paints a personal portrait of this moment, whilst also carrying the weight of their conversation into a discourse that resonates powerfully today.
Starring alongside Kingsley Ben-Adir, Leslie Odom Jr. and Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge portrays the subtleties and calm candor of Jim Brown with integrity and studied self-possession. Speaking to King ahead of the film’s release, Hodge reflects on the pressures of taking on the role, the impact he hopes it will have, the best advice he’s been given and how he’s finally learnt to implement it.
REGINA KING: We have a film that’s coming out and things are gearing up… How are you balancing that?
ALDIS HODGE: I am not sure if balance is in my repertoire these days, I have no time! For me it helps me to discipline and focus the time that I do have, and forces me to push out derogative habits and really step into the responsibilities that I ask for. With the show, City on a Hill, I am a producer this year. That has its own set of responsibilities and time; I am sure you know more than me in terms of time that you’ve gotta give up, time that you gotta spend giving notes. There’s that, there’s balancing that with my responsibility to the film. But for a long while, this has been the activity that I wanted to step in to as a young actor who was hungry for that work and hungry for that responsibility. For me, right now, this is what all those years were working up towards. So I am just happy to have it; I’m happy to lose the sleep.
RK: Speaking of not having time, because you went right out of One Night in Miami straight into [City on a Hill]. You’re playing a real person, that in real life is larger than life for so many people. Did you find it hard to shed Jim to get into the other character, or was that an easy transition for you to make?
AH: When it comes to the character, I stepped into the character enough to really embellish everything about the person. Especially when you are playing a real human being, you have to step into everything that they are and work from the source material. It’s sort of like you get a cheat sheet, because you have all of this knowledge about them, right? But when I’m on set in my work, I like to keep a little buffer; a little space for me to discover more… I try to give myself that space to be able to hop out and observe my work from a distance, and then get back into it. It does help me when I transition from one character to the next character, because now I can sort of stop, reset, pause, and do the work that I need to get ready for the next role. Granted, I had a little bit of an advantage because I am going from all these months of work and prep with Jim Brown into a character on a TV show that I built, so I’m working from my own playbook with the character I’m stepping into. I did have to watch a couple episodes to make sure the accent was right though, because after a couple of months of speaking like Jim Brown, I didn’t want to make the mistake of carrying that sound into the next character.
RK: It’s one of the things that I remember on set, and the responses that I get regarding your performance — how much people love how you capture the voice in the dialogue. The Southern thing comes through, but it’s very specific. Did you feel any pressure tackling that?
AH: I felt immense pressure. I remember having a conversation with you, because I didn’t want to put on like a caricature-type of feel. I wanted to make sure that he sounds like a real human being. I did feel the pressure of respecting this man because he is still here today. I am working from his legacy; we are working in the interest of elevating and celebrating what his legacy is with this film. So for me, I wanted to get it right. I kept listening to his voice over and over, and there were two safeguards when it came to consistency with this character that really kept me on track. The first one was you — you were my source of confidence when it came to ‘Alright, just stay with it’. I’d ask you ‘Is this alright? Am I doing my job?’ You’d let me know, and I’d say ‘OK, if you’re happy, I’m happy’. Something else I picked up was from Kingsley [Ben-Adir]. I really respected his dedication and tact when it came to approaching his role.
RK: I feel like I got the lucky opportunity to be a fifth wheel. No one is able, or will ever be able, to see the four of you the way I was able to witness the choices and the transformation. It’s very interesting, because every one of you would do specific body language things that you kept throughout. All of these little nuance things that made it an embodiment. You became the person that you were playing, as opposed to an impersonation. Did you hone in on certain things and say ‘I’m gonna make sure I get that’, or did you just find from studying that those things became part of the DNA?
AH: I definitely used every bit of information I could get from watching interviews of Jim Brown back in the day. What I found was he just had an essence to him that was really consistent with how he’d handle certain things. My favourite interview — which I know I’ve said a million times before, but I’ll keep saying it because it was my primary source of watching his mannerisms and informed me about his approach to conflict — [was] the interview where he’s on The Dick Cavett Show. He’s sitting there debating the then Georgia Governor, Lester Maddox, about his feeling on immigration versus segregation. Lester just really couldn’t match Jim Brown’s intellect during the debate. Lester got so pissed off, he got so upset that he stormed off stage and Jim kept it cool the entire time. Whether he was making a civil point, whether he was taking an aggressive stance, he still remained calm. He kept his candor about it. The way he was about everything informed how I sat, how I move my hands, how I laughed, a lot of that came from that interview. After a while of watching a combination of different interviews and keeping that practice on a daily basis, it became second nature to the point where it’s sort of like an afterthought. I remember you saying, which I thought was really strategically brilliant — I don’t want to paraphrase, but you said part of the casting decisions was based off the essence or the spirit of these men. Is that correct?
RK: Yeah, definitely.
AH: So that, to me, having been carried throughout the process of the film and having it being so distinctive, helped us to really carve out who we were individually. But more than that, carve out our relationship, because I feel this is a story that depends more on the collective relationship amongst the four of us than the individual journey of either one of us. It all comes together because it’s about their friendship and about their journey together as they’re figuring this out. One of the things that helped to keep us right on track was that we were all so dialed in, and a part of that was our nature, a part of that was the work that we put in, but primarily it comes down to the initial choice — the choice of casting, of putting us all in the same space together.
RK: I am definitely one of those people that believes that we do put in the work, but I think the roles find the actor. There were some actors that would not audition, and I’m like ‘I have to know that you truly understand, or have, as you said, the essence that you know who these men are. Not just what they represent for you individually, but who they are as men’. And each of you captured that. I actually did have some people not want to come in because of it being an ensemble piece. At any point when you read the script, did that deter you in any way?
AH: No. I will say that initially I didn’t know if I had the right stuff to bring to the table — I didn’t know if I had the right essence or the right skill set to honour Mr. Brown’s story. I honestly was not as confident of myself in terms of approaching the role and auditioning, but then they were like ‘Regina wants you to see you audition’, and I was like ‘I am gonna audition!’ I know that for me it came down to a point of confidence, of can I honour this particular role in truth? Can I honour this man, as he’s still living, with respect with my performance? […] I think there is a degree of responsibility we have to have as artists going into what we are doing, especially if we are doing a biopic. If you are doing a biopic, or if you are doing anything to represent a very specific culture that’s not just a commercial pop kind of film, you have to be responsible about it. So I considered these things when it came to my initial reservations about auditioning for Jim Brown.
RK: You were the first person I cast. Did you know that?
AH: Well, I do know that! I was like ‘Oh, the pressure!’ But I was really happy about that; I found it to be an honour. In terms of your question about the ensemble versus the individual storyline… The art in the script, that is beautifully written by Kemp Powers, is the conversation. The conversation being had is the star — the morals, the conflicts, the debates. That’s the star of the film. All of these gentlemen had a moment that spoke so vividly to where we are today, where we have been for so many years, and it speaks to how it can get further from where we are now. There is a purpose here that is not about you. The purpose of being a part of this particular art, at least in my opinion, is not about any one of these men individually. This is not a singular biopic; this is about a conversation and a relationship that all of these four men have. So if you are not signing up for the relationship and the actual goal, or if you don’t understand what that goal is, then it’s not for you.
RK: Speaking of the conversation — in your perfect world, what would you like the finish line, or the goal, or the impact of this film to be?
AH: I will selfishly say I would like for the impact to reflect my initial reasonings for engaging with this project, which is to explain to our culture how to have a reasonable debate. How to have a conversation of differences, and figure out how that conversation can end on a collective note hat pushes us forward towards progression instead of separating us.
I think it can also serve as sort of a blueprint for people who are asking ‘What is going on? Why are you in pain? What is happening with you and your people?’ Hopefully people can understand — who don’t go through what we go through, don’t look like what we look like — no one is absolved of any of the pressures that we go through as Black people, especially in this country. There is no degree of material wealth, or success, or achievement or accolade, there is no degree of anything that can absolve us or remove us from the experience of being Black in America and all of the hardships that go along with it. Some people, because they can’t experience it, they are not empathetic. I can understand why you don’t get it, but if you tip your perspective just slightly enough, you may be able to open your mind and say ‘Let me just try to understand’, and that’s what I hope we can do that with this film. This film exposes a conversation that resulted in monumental after-effects… You get to see all of these after-effects from these conversations and you get to see so much progress. So let this be a reminder, a beacon, to allow people to understand we can have these conversations. And with action afterwards, we can create history. These men took their platform, they took their awareness of themselves and their access and their responsibility, and they did something with it because they knew, at the end of the day, they still had a greater goal beyond themselves.
RK: […] Speaking of all of the things you have learned along the way… Given all that you have now and as you are moving forward, what do you see the future
AH: As a man I am still figuring myself out, but my morals maintain, my goal is the same. I just wanna be a good person, be good to the people around me. I want to be better than my faults. A rule that I have for myself — I started saying it at around 13 or 14 years old — was ‘Don’t become that which you despise the most’. It’s a little dramatic, but what I mean is whatever adversity I come up against there will be some influence, but I don’t want to give anything the power to make me bitter. To take away my joy, to take away my belief and my faith and my hope. I think the resilience of people is wonderful and I think true strength comes in being able to laugh and still love through any adversity holding for you as an artist, as a man? and through any pain. People who still fight for that, I admire them so much.
As far as a businessman… At the end of the day I would like to provide jobs. I would like to provide, or be an asset to, the cultural shift in terms of how Black people are perceived in entertainment; how Black people are perceived in the world through our representation of them through entertainment. I want to be a part of the cultural shift for the normalcy of the inclusion of us all. And not just Black people, I mean culturally all the way around. Our job as artists, to quote Ms. Nina Simone, is to reflect the times in which we live. If you look outside, you see all the cultures around. We have to reflect that to a point of normalcy and not to a point of biased agenda.
Let’s also keep in mind that we have a responsibility to be honest with ourselves when we are doing it. That means that if we can’t do the job we have to get out of our own way, let somebody else come in and do the job properly. Give opportunity. Let’s move beyond the comfort zones that keep certain people down, and let’s open up some real doors. What I would like to do is open up an avenue for other people who don’t understand that there are opportunities out there, and let them know that this opportunity is for you. Imagine a world where little kids to who, generally, the world is telling ‘Look, you’re not gonna make it; you’re only gonna go so far’, imagine if they did not believe that lie? Because that’s what the world told me. I want push out the right opportunities, and affect the monumental shift that is necessary and that needs to happen. It’s one of those things where I tell artists who want to get in the game: seek not what you can get from the craft, seek what you can put into the craft. What blueprint can you leave that is gonna make the environment better than when you got in? And I hope that by the end of my days I will have left something better; I have left the situation and this environment better than when I started.
RK: You have just given so much great advice throughout this conversation, and I know that some of it was just discovering that you made on your own. But is there any advice that you find continues to be the gift that keeps on giving?
AH: I remember when I was 18, my mother told me that happiness is a choice, and I didn’t understand what that meant until I was around 30. I am 34 now, so it’s not very long, but you know, life was a little tough. We had some hardships and I was just dealing with I would say maybe some depression and some anger issues at a younger age. I spent years trying to figure it out, and the most consistent thing people kept telling me was ‘find balance’, because I am always on the go and I don’t have a grasp for just sitting still and being content. Sometimes, at least in my experience in what I have seen around me, the way you are taught to think is ‘I am not allowed to be happy right now, because I have to go do this other thing. I have to sacrifice this happiness or whatever just so we can eat and so we can pay the bills. I gotta be here for this person, I can’t worry about me right now’. I had to realise wow, that’s a sad reality. You can still be here and take care of all of those things, be here for people and still be happy. To choose happiness is also to choose vulnerability. That’s something that I was not open emotionally to the idea of, because again, with the way I grew up, sometimes people would take advantage of your vulnerabilities. Now that means it’s not just a matter of somebody hurting your feelings, it’s a matter of life and death. You can always leave yourself unguarded, but I realised I had to really take control of who I was and who I wanted to be in order to get where I was trying to go. And that meant choosing happiness. I tell people look, understand the value in making the choice to be happy. And on top of that, I tell people all the time to not mistake your wants for your needs. There are a lot of things we want that can set us back, so we don’t get them. And we don’t understand. Then we get that thing that we need and it makes so much sense, but we are not always capable of having the vision or the foresight to understand the reason or the value of it until it happens. So keep your faith and believe in yourself, and just know that if something that you really want is not coming your way, maybe it’s not supposed to be there yet. It doesn’t mean that you won’t be taken care of; it doesn’t mean that your heart’s desires won’t be met. It just means that other things are being put in your way to help you get there, and to be prepared when you do get there. Sometimes if you get an opportunity too early that you are not prepared for you can mess it up. You want to be prepared when you get to this thing that you’ve been hunting for. So patience is everything. Happiness, joy, patience and just understanding that full faith. Don’t mistake your wants for your needs.
RK: That is absolutely a wonderful place to button this conversation. I could talk to you forever…
AH: You know I can talk!
RK: Well, it’s great to listen to you. My mother always said happiness is a choice. My son is 24 and I have been saying that to him and he is still not receiving it. This way you have framed that idea, that philosophy, that advice of happiness is a choice, I just wonder if he heard it that way, would he receive it differently? Would that code be cracked for him?
AH: My phone is always open.
RK: I might take you up on that. But one of the things I see in the future of Aldis Hodge is being a great connector for young men that are tapping into their full purpose.
AH: Thank you, I hope so! I am trying to be of service. My whole family is my foundation so I gotta give it back, and I hope that I can be of service in the right way and the best way possible.
RK: You are, my friend.