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To play Jim Brown, Aldis Hodge has to forget the NFL star’s greatness and ‘get down to the human’

Rising star’s movie ‘One Night in Miami’ takes place in 1964, and the look and language of the time appealed to him as an ‘old soul.’

Aldis Hodge plays Cleveland Browns standout Jim Brown in “One Night in Miami.”

Before the story gets to the evening in question in Regina King’s Oscar-buzzy 1964 period-piece “One Night in Miami,” there’s an unforgettable scene in which NFL superstar Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) returns to his hometown of St. Simons Island, Georgia, and visits the estate of Mr. Carlton, a wealthy white man who has known Brown’s family for years.

As they sip cool lemonade in the shade, Mr. Carlton (Beau Bridges) beams with pride and effusively praises Brown for his achievements on the gridiron, and all is a pleasant and light — until there comes a gut-punch of a moment when Mr. Carlton makes it crystal clear Brown still has to know his place, and let’s just say that place is literally on that front porch.

Sometimes, in fact quite often, racism comes cloaked in a putatively welcome smile and a warm handshake.

“That scene, for me, is the truest reflection of the nucleus of so many problems that we’re going through today and that we have been going through in this country: people with an aversion to the idea they have work to do when it comes to how they treat other people,” Hodge told me in a recent Zoom chat. “There are a lot of people who don’t see others as humans and we’ve seen that primarily most recently, just a couple of days ago [in Washington, D.C.].”

You might recognize Aldis Hodge from his roles in “What Men Want,” “Hidden Figures” or “Straight Outta Compton,” but the 34-year-old North Carolina native has a resume that stretches all the way back to playing Ray “Voodoo” Tatum in the 2006-2007 season of “Friday Night Lights” — and a dozen years before that, he played Samuel L. Jackson’s young nephew in “Die Hard With a Vengeance” (1995). After years of steady, mostly supporting work on TV and in film, Hodge is riding the wave of next-level stardom, from his work as the supportive cop James in last year’s hit “The Invisible Man” to an upcoming part as anti-hero Hawkman/Carter Hall in the Dwayne Johnson/DC Films big-budget actioner “Black Adam,” slated for filming this year.

“One Night in Miami” (available Friday on Amazon Prime Video) is a fictionalized version of a real-life gathering of four legendary icons in the hours after Cassius Clay, who will soon become known as Muhammad Ali, defeats heavyweight champion Sonny Liston at the Miami Convention Center. Adapted by Kemp Powers from his stage play of the same name, the film also stars Eli Goree as Clay/Ali, Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke and Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X. (The now 84-year-old Brown also has a long history of legal troubles, but the fictional film takes place only on that one night in question.)

“You mentioned [Brown] was larger than life, and that is true, all of these men were,” said Hodge. “The thing we had to keep in mind was we’re not playing what WE know of them, we’re playing the human beings. So, we had to strip away the magnitude of their greatness and get down to the human that was going through something that eventually built up to that greatness.”

The production design team takes us back to 1964 with the cars, the clothes, the furniture, the hairstyles, the music of the time — but Hodge said even the simplest greeting, whether it be a handshake or a friendly hello, had to be true to the time. “We had so much fun talking about how we greeted each other. You can’t say, ‘Yo bro, what’s up?’, it was more like, ‘My man, what’s happening. What’s happening cat?’ That keeps us in the spirit of the film, and the mind frame of where we are. Now, I was born in the 1980s but my spirit is somewhere in the 1970s or the 1960s, I feel like I’m an old soul, so for me it was just fun to feel like I could be myself.”

Actor Aldis Hodge smiles during a 2019 visit to Chicago.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The most heated friction in “One Night in Miami” is between Malcolm X, who was at the apex of his power as a sometimes radical activist with controversial, polarizing views, and Sam Cooke, who was crooning old-fashioned love songs and was largely apolitical. Jim Brown was somewhere in the middle at the time.

“I felt like Jim served as a translator,” said Hodge. “In this film, the conversation is the star. The conversation is the glue that keeps us in the room and keeps the audience in their seats. It’s a brilliantly crafted conversation by Kemp Powers. I think where we find Jim in this whole spectrum is, he’s able to understand what Malcolm is saying and what he wants while at the same time what Sam is saying and what HE wants. He realizes they’re not hearing each other — and that’s [often] where we are to this day as a culture, in that a lot of us are shooting at the same goal, we’re just using different means of getting there. Jim is trying to bridge the gap between the two guys.”

The conversation turned to the long history of athletes and other celebrities using their fame as a platform to express their views — and how there’s often blowback to that, e.g., a certain conservative commentator telling LeBron James to “Shut up and dribble,” an ugly reminder a lot of people are still figuratively on that front porch with Mr. Carlton, telling a Black man to know his place.

“Here’s the thing,” said Hodge. “I’m a man first. I’m a Black man, I’m an American. Just like every other American, we are entitled to our opinions, we are citizens. Regardless of whatever your job is, as a citizen, you have a right to your opinion. … We all have the same inalienable right. Somebody telling you or me, ‘Stick to da da da,’ I would [say to them], ‘You realize you’re voicing YOUR opinion, right? So you’re sitting here telling me to stop doing what you are actually doing right now.’ There are some people who are raised with that feeling of entitlement, that their opinions matter more than others. At the end of the day, they can say whatever they want. I’m gonna still speak.”