Why Leslie Odom Jr. is an Oscars front-runner for ‘One Night in Miami’

Not even this extended awards season has stopped the Best Supporting Actor race from becoming an apparent runaway. As happened in 2015 (when J.K. Simmons won for “Whiplash”), 2017 (when Mahershala Ali won for “Moonlight”), 2018 (when Sam Rockwell won for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), 2019 (when Ali won again, this time for “Green Book”), and 2020 (when Brad Pitt won for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), awards experts and pundits have thrown overwhelming support behind one performance so far: Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke in “One Night in Miami.”

Here at Gold Derby, 26 Experts have Odom pegged to receive his first Oscar nomination for the performance, with more than half (15 in total) expecting the Tony- and Grammy-winning star to take home the trophy. Similarly, the Experts also have Odom receiving complimentary nominations from the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild in the supporting actor category, where again he’s predicted to triumph over all other competitors.

SEE 2021 Oscar Predictions for Best Supporting Actor

How did this happen so early in a season that will last another three months? The shortest answer is Odom is just that good as Cooke. He mimics the legendary performer’s singing voice for multiple show-stopping musical numbers while also getting to the heart of a character at war within himself over whether to do what’s right or what’s easy. But there are deeper layers at play here as well — making Cooke, and by association Odom, one of the most timely figures in this year’s awards race.

Based on the play by Kemp Powers (who also wrote the screenplay) and directed by Regina King, “One Night in Miami” focuses on the title evening in February 1964, after Cassius Clay (who by the time the film ends has embraced the name Muhammad Ali) defeated Sonny Liston to become boxing’s heavyweight champion. Following the fight, Clay, Cooke, Malcolm X, and Jim Brown all congregated together — friends connected by what Clay terms in the film as being “young, Black, righteous, famous, unapologetic.”

The evening itself happened in real life, but Powers took liberties with their conversations and created an environment where the four figures are able to debate and discuss the Black experience in America and their efforts to fight back against white supremacy and racism. In no pairing is the push and pull of the civil rights movement better expressed than between Cooke and Malcolm X (played by Kingsley Ben-Adir in a performance that has similarly received awards praise). To Malcolm X — whose fame came not from his physical attributes but his willingness to speak truth to power — it’s the job of Black celebrities to use their platform to call out against injustice in the loudest terms possible. To Cooke — a gifted performer who frequently navigated between Black and white audiences — his success should speak for itself. As he says during one of his arguments with Malcolm X, some people want a piece of the pie, Cooke wants the recipe.

But as “One Night in Miami” moves towards its emotional climax, Cooke realizes he can’t stand on the sidelines. His embrace of subtle individual success rings hollow if it means leaving others to fend for themselves. The film ends with the singer performing his protest song “A Change Is Gonna Come” on “The Tonight Show,” a track that would become Cooke’s most widely acclaimed release and a rallying cry for the civil rights movement.

That discourse about activism and how celebrities should use their platforms to further social justice is a conversation that happens to this day — indeed, it makes up the dramatic centerpiece of the Taylor Swift documentary “Miss Americana” — and positions Odom an avatar for countless performers, many of whom will likely relate to Cooke’s internal struggle.

“These are the kinds of talks that we have,” Odom told Entertainment Weekly last year about the script. “Kemp says it about his own experience. This is the way him and his friends were talking at Howard University when he was coming up. This is the way we were talking backstage at Hamilton. These are the kinds of conversations we’ve been having for a very long time, but it was the first time that I had seen it in a script, and certainly, the first time that I was being offered the opportunity to be that raw and to be that honest. So I was going to have to find my way there through my fear. I had to, because Sam was having the conversation. It wasn’t me, but I saw the value in it, and I was willing to take the leap.”

“One Night in Miami” capped off what turned out to be a big year for Odom. In July, Disney released the filmed version of Hamilton: the Musical to its Disney+ streaming platform, renewing the obsession many felt for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s historic Broadway sensation. (Odom, of course, won Best Actor at the 2016 Tony Awards for his portrayal of Aaron Burr and could receive nominations at the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards, where the movie-musical is eligible.) “Miami” further combined his talents, providing Odom with an opportunity not just to act and sing but also to write music. The film’s closing credits song, “Speak Now,” was written and performed by Odom and could land him a nomination for Best Original Song as well.

All of which makes his front-runner status in the Best Supporting Actor race expected and deserved. His closest competition, at least according to the Gold Derby Experts, is Sacha Baron Cohen for “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Like Odom, Cohen plays a real-life figure (activist Abbie Hoffman) and engages in a number of philosophical debates about the best way to affect progressive change in the face of racism, fascism, and authoritarianism. (Ironically, Cohen’s Hoffman — who argues most vociferously with Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden — shares a number of ideological points with Malcolm X in “One Night in Miami.”) It was also a great year for Cohen, whose “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” performance is likely to earn a Golden Globes nomination and possible win for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy. But the mere fact that Cohen has multiple awards-worthy contenders on his resume this season likely dings his front-runner potential, leaving Odom all but assured to follow in the footsteps of Pitt, Ali, Rockwell, and Simmons en route to a wire-to-wire Oscars win.

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