Speaking during a BAFTA Masterclass in London last night (Jan 12), King said: “If I was moved by a performance, I really don’t care where a person’s from.”
In reference to British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir, who portrays Malcolm X in her feature directorial debut, and Canadian actor Eli Goree, who portrays a young Muhammad Ali, King explained:
“As an audience member, to me they truly understood what they were doing, what they were embodying. After Kingsley’s first audition, I wanted to give him some notes. I wanted to just talk to him and get to know him and get to know what his relationship was to Malcolm. He said all the things that I needed to hear him say and I think it’s unfortunate that this is where we are.”
In recent years, British actors David Oyelowo, Cynthia Erivo and Daniel Kaluuya have portrayed civil rights icons Martin Luther King Jr, Harriet Tubman and Fred Hampton, respectively. Some in Hollywood have questioned whether non-American actors should get such roles. Others have noted that American actors often portray iconic foreign characters.
King continued last night: “One of the things that I’ve truly understood or discovered throughout this process of One Night in Miami, is that upon first receiving this and reading it, I thought, ‘Wow, Kemp, this is just a love letter to the black man’s experience in America.’ But then taking that step back and really taking in marginalised people across the world. There are feelings and experiences that black people in the UK, in Brazil feel that are the same as in America. While the history of how a country came to be may be different, the marginalisation of a black man is the same, colorism is the same in all of those places.
“Kingsley was the best actor for that role and Eli was the best actor for that role. Sure, neither one of them are American. But can they relate to the experience and the pain felt by a black person for being disregarded just because of the colour of your skin? Absolutely, they can. Can they take it upon themselves to make sure they educate themselves on the ways it’s specific to America in the history of how black Americans had built this country, it was built on the bodies of black Americans? They can definitely educate themselves on that and they did. I wouldn’t change my choices for anyone.”
The debate over who should be allowed to play who is certainly alive and well.
One Night In Miami, which debuted at the Venice Film Festival last year and is available on Amazon Prime, charts a real meeting in the segregated South between Cassius Clay (Goree), Malcolm X (Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr) and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge).
The timely civil rights drama originated with playwright and screenwriter Kemp Powers (Soul), whose stage play of the same name imagined the passionate conversation between the men that night.
We spoke to King soon after the film’s debut in Venice.