Since Leslie Odom Jr. is a mega-talented actor and has the voice of an angel, it’s no wonder he was cast as the King of Soul, Sam Cooke in Regina King’s One Night in Miami. The film depicts some of Cooke’s struggles and successes in the music industry. You will get to see the Hamilton star sing, as One Night in Miami features some of Cooke’s hits including “Good Times” and “A Change Is Gonna Come,” but there is one thing that pains Odom Jr.
I will avoid any plot spoilers here, but with Sam Cooke in particular, One Night in Miami addresses code-switching. In the Black community, this term is used to describe changing our behavior or speech pattern to fit in or be accepted in another (usually white) community. Cooke is called out by his friends in the film for putting on a different show for different audiences. Leslie Odom Jr. shared his thoughts in an interview with CinemaBlend. Here’s what he said:
We sit in a little bit of a place of privilege because of Sam’s work. Because Sam walked, Aretha could run, and Aretha gave Whitney wings, and Whitney gave, you know, so you can’t judge some of our ancestors that came before us because they were doing the best they could. You know, Sam wore his hair in a natural. That was radical. He cut the conk out of his hair, there was no process in my hair. He gave, as one of the biggest stars of his day, he gave brothas the confidence to wear that little fro, to wear that lil [gestures to his head] natural thing. That was just not done in his day, so he did his part. But yes, it pains me to think that there was a room, any room in America, that would’ve not opened their arms to Sam Cooke, that he wouldn’t have been accepted. You know for me, ‘cause he’s my guy, any room that didn’t accept him didn’t deserve him. But he knew that acceptance in the Copa, that was money. That’s gonna open the opportunity to make the dough that I need to make around this country, and his talent deserved it. And he didn’t want to be relegated to one section of the business with all that talent that he was bringing to the table.
The Copa Room in Miami Beach was the nightclub to perform in, but in the 60s they weren’t letting too many colored folks in there. One Night in Miami shows how Sam Cooke’s talent got him booked and how he altered his performance for an all white crowd. As Leslie Odom Jr. mentioned, the decision was about furthering Cooke’s career, not turning his back on his people or trying to be something he wasn’t. Odom Jr. was the most excellent choice for this role because of how he conveys Cooke’s sincerity and dedication to his craft.
With his kindness, talent and charisma, Sam Cooke absolutely should’ve been accepted anywhere and everywhere. I can only marvel at what he endured to lay the groundwork for the many that would follow him in the music industry. From someone who couldn’t get comfortable with her own natural hair until well into her 20s, I echo Leslie Odom Jr.’s sentiments that going totally natural was a radical move on Sam Cooke’s part and we can only be grateful.