From Malcolm X to Barack Obama: Kingsley Ben-Adir Has the Range

Culture

Kingsley Ben-Adir had less than two weeks to prepare for the role of Malcolm X in One Night In Miami before filming began in New Orleans.

He spent most of that time waking up before sunrise and drilling the script into his memory, studying Malcolm’s dialect and consuming audiobooks and films on the revolutionary leader. There was physical preparation as well: he cut his food intake by three quarters to drop 20 pounds, achieving the most striking resemblance to Malcolm since Denzel Washington’s portrayal in Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic, Malcolm X.

“I wanted to know that film like the palm of my hand,” Ben-Adir says, speaking via Zoom from the living room of the central London apartment he’s lived in for the last eight years. He’s wearing a copper-colored sweater, a lavender beanie and a shiny band on his ring finger–“an engagement ring,” he says (his reps declined to comment further on that). “And I think part of it was terror. I think subconsciously there was adrenaline.”

At 34, Ben-Adir has starred in a number of acclaimed projects in the last few years—mostly in supporting roles, but he’s slowly building a reputation for the way he disappears into characters. His breakout moment may be here now: One Night in Miami imagines the real conversation that took place on the evening of February 25th, 1964 between Muhammed Ali (at the time still known as Cassius Clay), Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Malcolm X at Miami’s Hampton House Motel, one of the era’s segregated African American hotels, after Ali’s title win against Sonny Liston. The film, which is also the actress Regina King’s directorial debut, is a compelling ensemble piece, delivering equal parts humor, camaraderie and introspection on the pivotal, legacy-defining decisions each man was wrestling with at that time. Ben-Adir provides the story’s emotional center, depicting the ardency of a conflicted man who would be murdered just one year later.

Portraying one of Black culture’s most revered figures is a tall order, but Ben-Adir has already been there: The most nervous he’s ever been was when he played Malcolm X’s political and temperamental opposite, Barack Obama, in Showtime’s recent The Comey Rule. He took three days off from filming Miami to shoot the miniseries in Toronto. “I was like, Jesus fucking Christ, what have I got myself into? I’m like, 25 years too young. But as soon as I got the words out it was fine,” he said. Ben-Adir’s casting continues the trend of Black British actors getting big roles as African-Americans that stretches through Thandie Newton in Beloved to David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in Selma. There’s been backlash from Black American actors in the past, but King, speaking with GQ over email, is succinct about her reasons for choosing Ben-Adir: “I think the best actor for the role should play the role.”

Ben-Adir was born in the London neighborhood of Kentish Town, and when I mistakenly say Kensington, he’s quick to correct me. “Don’t say Kensington because Kensington makes me look like a real posh boy,” he says playfully. His mother, who is Black, and his father, who is white British, weren’t together but were both very present in his life. One of his earliest memories was spending every weekend and school holiday with his maternal grandparents, who relocated from Trinidad and Tobago in the 1970s among the early waves of Caribbean immigrants to the UK.

Kentish Town was a mostly working-class area when Ben-Adir was growing up, but nearby neighborhoods were wealthier. “In my high school, I was in classrooms with people who went off to Oxford and Cambridge. And I was also next to people who went to prison before the age of 15 and who are not with us,” he explains. “So there were definitely periods of my life where it was fucking really dangerous and rough growing up around here. I came out on the lucky side.”

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