TIFF 2020: How Canadian star Eli Goree brought Muhammad Ali to life in 'One Night in Miami'

By Zach Harper

One Night in Miami, Regina King's directorial debut, is garnering critical praise for the performances from its stars. One of those actors is Canada's Eli Goree, who portrays a young Muhammad Ali – still going by Cassius Clay at the time the film is set.

The picture is based on Kent Powers's play of the same name. It is a fictionalized account of a meeting between the boxer, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) in 1964, just after the man who later became Muhammad Ali won the heavyweight champion of the world title with his win over Sonny Liston. Cassius was just 22 at the time, and had already achieved greatness and was poised to become even bigger.

MORE: The important message in One Night in Miami, Regina King's feature directorial debut

The film is screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. In a virtual press conference with Regina, Kingsley, Leslie, Aldis and Kent – who served as the film's screenwriter – Eli said he tried to tap into two key things when portraying the champ.

Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) and his team celebrate his victory over Sonny Liston in 1964. Photo: © Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images

The first was the Louisville, Ky.-born boxer's faith. Cassius converted to Islam in 1961 and changed his name after the bout with Sonny.

"To me as a Christian, faith is the core of who I am, and so that was the first thing I drew on," said Halifax-born Eli, who is also known for his work on Riverdale, The 100 and Ballers.

He said he also worked with dialect coach Trey Cotton to master the legend's southern accent and make sure he portrayed him accurately and didn't turn his character into a caricature.

"I said to him, 'I don't want to put the Ali-isms and the rhythm of his voice and the cadence over top of Eli,'" he shared. "That's what I've seen in other performances, and then it just becomes an SNL thing. I wanted to go to the root of who he was.

"So what we first did was, when we were prepping the script, we didn't do any Ali voice. We got rid of all that and just worked on sounding like an authentic African-American from Louisville, Kentucky. And then once we were able to do that, on top of that, I could layer in his personality.

"So I think those two things, the combination of knowing the faith and growing to understand - and I know we only have a short time, but there's so much to that goes into what it means to be Black and from the south and from that time especially, but even today."

Accurately capturing the spirit of historical characters is at the heart of One Night in Miami. Leslie, who is known for his performances in Hamilton, said he had the same concern portraying soul legend Sam. He called him "the bar" for all modern-day Black men who are singers. Leslie captured Sam's crooning voice so well that he actually fooled Eli and people on set when a recording of him was played and they all thought it was Sam.

You can see One Night in Miami on Sept. 16 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto as part of TIFF 2020. Amazon has bought the film, so expect to see it on the streaming platform soon.

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