Leslie Odom

By Ron Wynn

NASHVILLE, TN — It’s only the middle of January, so people touting any film as best of the year are either being premature or attributing something they recently saw to last season. However it is a safe bet that there won’t be too many productions made in 2021 superior to Regina King’s outstanding debut work “One Night In Miami.” From the standpoint of casting, acting and writing it is stellar. One of the toughest roles to nail is that of the famed vocalist, producer and record label owner Sam Cooke.

But the person who does a spectacular job in that role is celebrated Broadway performer Leslie Odom. A Tony Award winner for his role as Aaron Burr in “Hamilton,” Odom acknowledges initially turning down the role before deciding to accept it. He told USA Today last week that the weight of playing Cooke weighed heavily on him. “I said, ‘No, thank you,’ respectfully,’” Odom said. “It was part fear. Starting out in this business, people are rushing to put a label on your forehead: ‘Oh, you’re like a Don Cheadle meets Ben Vereen,’ or ‘Oh, you’re doing a Sammy Davis Jr. thing.’ You long for the day people will just see you as yourself, so I didn’t think it was wise to go and try to now pretend to be Sam Cooke. What if I fell short?”

However Odom proves dazzling in the role. The film is based on a fictional meeting between Cooke, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree) in 1964. It follows these four men through the course of one evening, as they commiserate about money, celebrity and the pressures facing Black leaders in white-dominated spaces. Malcolm argues Sam has a responsibility to address civil rights in his music, while Sam counters that his success as a Black musician – owning the masters to his songs, signing other Black artists to his label – is itself an act of protest.

Odom had already made a name for himself in a different way prior to the film. He demanded pay equity for his participation in the filmed production of “Hamilton,” and also fought to make sure his castmates’ contracts included profit-sharing and financial protections. Before taping the movie, which was bought by Disney for $75 million and premiered on Disney+ last July, Odom asked producers for the same salary that Aaron Tveit, a white actor, earned in 2016’s TV musical “Grease Live!” for a comparable starring role.

“I learned early on that you can’t come from a place of ego as an artist – and certainly not as a Black artist – at the negotiating table,” Odom told the Los Angeles Times. “You have to ask for what you feel you deserve and what you feel is right for your contribution,” says Odom, who originated the role of Burr and played more than 500 “Hamilton” performances.

“I got a bad rap in certain circles in New York City – we all did – for that action. A lot of people were saying such awful things about us and trying to tarnish our reputations during that negotiation, and it’s like, I hope you’re not forming your lips to say ‘Black Lives Matter’ if that’s how you feel. Don’t wait for the cops to kill me for my Black life to matter. Compensate us fairly. Treat us with respect for our work. Give us the dignity of that. That’s how you can show that ‘Black Lives Matter’ right now today.”

“One Night In Miami” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.