One Night in Miami screenwriter Kemp Powers and Leslie Odom Jr. — who played Sam Cooke in the film and wrote the Oscar-nominated end-title song “Speak Now” — convened to talk about the musicality in Powers’ script and the potential power music holds to spark social change.
Powers represents a double presence at this year’s Academy Awards — both for Pixar’s Soul, which he co-wrote and co-directed, and Regina King’s directorial debut, which Kemp adapted from his own stage play. Both are very musical at their core, insisting that form of creative expression goes beyond melody and lyrics. “That’s a belief I’ve always had,” Powers says in a THR Presents Q&A powered by Vision Media. “I think that music kind of transcends language, it transcends all things. I didn’t realize it was the case, but I tend to be drawn to stories with a very strong musical element.”
One Night in Miami centers on an imagined conversation at a gathering that actually took place in 1964 between four Black luminaries at the heart of the Civil Rights movement: Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Cooke. Malcolm X lovingly but pointedly challenges Cooke to use his weapon — his voice — to do more for the movement, which Odom says reminds us of “the power [music] can have to move people and get messages out, and really affect change on a global level. Nothing moves people like music.”
One of the additions Powers and King made in Miami’s transition from stage to screen was actually showing the scene, recounted by Malcolm X, where Cooke stirs a rowdy crowd and unifies them in a participatory performance of his 1960 song “Chain Gang.” “You’re able to feel the energy in the house,” Powers says. “By being able to actually go there, it makes it one of the most powerful moments in the film for me.”
Odom says the script itself was musical: “It really did feel, at times, like we were a jazz band. But I felt less like Miles Davis, and more like the trumpet — in that there were all these internal rhythms and musicality, to the way that these guys spoke in life. And Kemp brought his great ear and talent as a journalist to his work here as a screenwriter.”
For the film’s end-credits song “Speak Now,” the Hamilton star says he was initially intimidated to follow in Cooke’s songwriting footsteps, but was inspired by the lack of rivalry he felt in the room with this quartet of actors.
“I thought of the song that I wrote with Sam Ashworth as an offering,” says Odom. “That, somehow, we could make an offering that was not in any competition with (Bob Dylan’s) ‘Blowing in the Wind,’ or (Cooke’s) ‘A Change is Gonna Come,’ or any of the other wonderful songs that are even nominated this year for awards. The art didn’t come from a competitive space.”