Four Legends: In Conversation with Costume Designer Francine Jamison-Tanchuck on One Night in Miami

Four Legends: In Conversation with Costume Designer Francine Jamison-Tanchuck on One Night in Miami

Whether on the basketball court in White Men Can’t Jump or portraying the American Civil War in Denzel Washington’s Oscar-winning Glory, Francine Jamison-Tanchuck has crafted garments that elevate the material and leave a lasting image. Reflecting the fruits of a four-decade long career, One Night in Miami delivers another costume knockout from the veteran designer. Emma Fraser meets Jamison-Tanchuck to find out how she pulled it off.

Four sharply dressed men gaze back at the viewer on the poster for One Night in Miami. This isn’t a case of boyband cohesion with a one-outfit-fits-all set-up – instead, these looks run the gamut from understated minimalism to bold burgundy. “Four legends. One legendary night.” reads the tagline, hinting at the events of the 1964 February evening depicted in Regina King’s feature directorial debut. Based on a real friendship, what unfolds is a fictional account of the night 22-year-old boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) stunned the sporting world by emerging victorious against the previously undefeated Sonny Liston. 

Adapted from Kemp Powers’ 2016 play of the same name (Powers also wrote the screenplay), Cassius – soon to become Muhammad Ali – hangs out with activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and American footballer Jim Brown (Aldis Lodge) in a low-key celebration. To illustrate the star power and the private persona of the figures portrayed, King turned to trailblazing costume designer Francine Jamison-Tanchuck (whose credits include Just Mercy, Detroit, White Men Can’t Jump, and Glory) to help bring these larger-than-life figures to life.Taking place in an intimate setting away from the flashbulbs, clamouring fans and potential threats, costume details are often just as revealing as the spirited conversations between friends. Serious political debate runs parallel to light-hearted teasing about suits and bow ties — each character has a different neckwear choice informed by archival images and Jamison-Tanchuck’s own memories. 

Speaking on the phone while sequestered in a hotel room in Atlanta (where the designer is currently working on the John Boyega and Jamie Foxx-starring sci-fi mystery caper They Cloned Tyrone), Jamison-Tanchuck reflects on the personal and professional experiences of making One Night in Miami. Not only has Jamison-Tanchuck broken barriers — she was the first African-American designer hired by Paramount Studios and Disney — but she is actively paying her experience forward to the next generation. “I myself knew no one when I came into the film industry. I was just out of college and I applied for the film industry Affirmative Action program,” she says. At the time, the Producers Association and other unions used these programs to bring more people of colour into every department. To qualify, a candidate either had to be a college graduate or in their third semester — Jamison-Tanchuck points out these kinds of programs no longer exist. 

To bridge this gap, Jamison-Tanchuck has teamed up with fellow costume designers Ruth E. Carter (the first African American person to win the Oscar for Costume Design for her work on Black Panther in 2019), Michelle Cole, and Sharen Davis to launch the Mildred Blount Scholarship Fund. This fund will “provide hands-on, state-of-the-art and one-on-one training experience to aspiring designers, especially recipients facing the greatest challenges.” Blount was the first African American member of the Motion Pictures Costumers Unions, and was known as the “milliner to the stars” (clients included Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, and Rosalind Russell). “To start a scholarship program — especially for young people and young people of colour — it was really important for us to reach back, to look back and to help create those opportunities for people to come in,” Jamison-Tanchuck says today.


Themes of community and representation run through One Night in Miami, which explores the civil rights movement via the different public roles these men have as entertainers and activists. “I didn’t know that these four men were that close in friendship,” Jamison-Tanchuck says. When King first approached her — the pair previously worked together on the 2007 movie This Christmas — a potential scheduling conflict meant Jamison-Tanchuck was unsure if she would be able to do this job. But the subject matter instantly piqued her interest, as history was almost her college major. “I wanted to be a historian and in some ways, I guess many costume designers are historians,” she says. “Reading the script, I knew Regina would handle this in a compassionate, wonderful way. So I ended up calling her, we had a conversation and that was it. I couldn't resist.”   

Jamison-Tanchuck’s interpretation of the four legends begins with childhood recollections of Sam Cooke, and her father’s love of the artist. “I can remember the shirts he would wear; beautiful, silky looking shirts, his sharkskin slacks and suits,” she says. “All of that I remember from the album covers when my dad played Sam Cooke. So that really gave me an edge, to have that memory.” Another frame of reference is footage of Malcolm X before he was assassinated in 1965. “I remember as a little kid those images of Malcolm X coming on the news,” Tanchuck explains in the production notes. “And I certainly remember when there was a special news break during one of my dad's TV shows. That image, which had a certain intensity for me as a child, burned in my brain.” 

Early in Jamison-Tanchuck’s career, she worked as part of Bernie Pollack’s costume team on the Robert Redford and Jane Fonda film The Electric Horseman. The shoot took place over six weeks in Las Vegas, and coincided with the 1978 tribute to Joe Lewis at Ceasar’s Palace. “I was able to see Muhammad Ali there. I remember him and he looked so wonderful in his gorgeous tuxedo,” she recalls — and a tuxedo is also part of the young boxer’s selection of Miami costumes. And even closer to home? Jamison-Tanchuck worked with Jim Brown on the Arnold Schwarzenegger film, The Running Man. The conservative three-piece suit he wears in One Night in Miami was something he was still leaning toward in 1987. 

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“There’s a library of information and pictorial archival history,” Jamison-Tanchuck says of her online resources. The iconic image of Cassius boxing underwater in a Miami swimming pool, wearing signature white shorts with a dark trim, was captured in 1961, but the indelible Flip Schulke photograph is brought to life in the film with the help of a timeline shift. Jamison-Tanchuck explains when she reads a script, she has “that ability to envision how the characters — the people — how they would be dressed.” One issue with sourcing material from the mid 1960s is that “the lion's share of photographs are in black and white,” she explains, although captions written at the time often reference the colour of the garments. 

When One Night in Miami premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year, King called Powers’ script a “love letter to the Black man’s experience.” Reflecting on this comment, I ask Jamison-Tanchuck if she considers her work as a love letter to Black men’s style. “Oh yes,” she says, detailing her experience growing up “among a Black community and seeing all these wonderful stylish men and women.” And the choice of deep, vibrant colours was no accident. “Black people love to have more colour, so it brings out their different complexions even more,” Jamison-Tanchuck says. Referring to the four “wonderfully handsome” actors, she explains how some choices reflect the ‘60s palette trends by “utilising the colours of that era — teals, certain burnt oranges.” 

The film’s opening sequence highlights how even successful athletes and performers are still subject to discrimination. Jim Brown’s deep yellow jacket stands out, while he contends with racism within the NFL that prompts a career change. Meanwhile, Sam Cooke performs at the legendary Copacabana in Manhattan to a hostile white clientele who care little for his dulcet tones singing ‘You Send Me’. The eye-catching silver sharkskin suit paired with a tie is the height of sophistication, but also speaks to how Cooke code-switches depending on his audience. This is the crux of Malcolm’s frustration with how the singer uses his voice, as he nods to Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’: “A white boy from Minnesota speaks more to the struggles of our movement than anything you’ve written in your life.” When Malcolm mentions a previous performance in front of an electrified Black crowd, Sam’s suit in the flashback is an exquisite teal, without the pretence of any neckwear. Although this was far from the designer’s first time tackling a pioneering ‘60s musician with slick taste (she designed costumes for 1998 mini-series The Temptations about the Motown band), Jamison-Tanchuck was thrilled to revisit this stylish decade, "There's something about the '60s. Looking at all of those visions and putting that into their outfits, it was just a wonderful experience.

Sam’s showbiz flair is at odds with Jim and Malcolm’s more conservative suit choices. The latter doesn’t deviate from a simple cut suit and skinny necktie — a subtle pattern breaks up the clean lines. Rather than letting his clothes distract from the message, he sticks to this uniform approach. Also adopting a timeless aesthetic, Jim might scoff at Malcolm’s suggestion that he switches his straight tie for a Nation of Islam bow tie, but his three-piece ensemble avoids flashy fads. Jokingly referring to Sam’s colourful attire as a “cheap purple suit,” Jim is almost as traditional as Malcolm with his wardrobe. Taste in fashion also reflects how these men present their ideas to the world, and costume adds to the spirited conversations that take place while the rest of Miami is partying. Younger than his friends, Cassius quips, “Why am I so pretty? And I’m only twenty-two years-old. There is no way I’m supposed to be this great.” His penchant for short-sleeve shirts that show off his boxer’s physique also reflect his youth. Eschewing ties, the only time he adds this accessory is when he dons a celebratory tuxedo. Although when asked if she has a favourite character to design for, Jamison-Tanchuck says: "I have to say no. Every last one – Aldis, Eli, Leslie, Kingsley – you talk about four of the nicest gentlemen I've ever worked with and very talented. So I don't have a favourite." 

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Incorporating garments the actors can remove when the temperature rises (both literally and figuratively) adds depth. Jim still looks dapper when he removes his jacket thanks to his waistcoat, whereas when Sam removes his cravat for a brief sojourn to get some liquor he looks less put together. This debonair neckwear and blush shirt sets Sam apart from his friends – but this wasn’t fictionalised. “We had video footage of Cassius Clay fighting Sonny Liston, and after the fight, he brought Sam Cooke into the ring. Sam Cooke at that fight was wearing a cravat,” Jamison-Tanchuck says. “I thought, ‘Wow, what a nice touch.’” The singer was known to wear his shirts open at the neck, which gave Odom Jr. options to visually reflect the changing mood of the room. “He could take off the cravat and they could take off their jackets, unbutton the shirts, loosen the ties. I really like that idea of giving them pieces to work with,” the designer adds. 

Costumes for the four leads are all custom-builds, which mirror the period but also take into account the physicality of the actors. Odom Jr. required performance costumes — his suit selection is a sartorial flex — that brings the magnetic album covers Jamison-Tanchuck remembers from her childhood to life. The majority of the film offers an intimate portrait of these four men, but notably, several crowd scenes featuring background actors act as a reminder of their star power and the adulation they experienced amid hostility. "That can be extremely challenging because during the time when we were prepping our film there were three other films being prepped for that era,” Jamison-Tanchuck tells us about pulling ‘60s garments from stock. When combing through costume houses, it can be a race against other productions – so having an alternative source is beneficial. Costume supervisor Steven M. Chudej, a friend of Jamison-Tanchuck who passed away at the end of 2019, was also a vintage costume owner. “He had wonderful suits, really nice ties that we were able to use in the background – especially for the British boxing where Cassius Clay is fighting in an open boxing ring in Great Britain,” she explains, noting how his stock of vintage garments was ideal for this project – as well as bittersweet gesture which she calls “a nice memorial for him”. 

Reflecting on the timeliness of One Night in Miami (our interview took place the day before the U.S. Capitol riots), Jamison-Tanchuck explains how the politics of Malcolm X permeated everything. “He brought a certain awareness to his friends,” she explains. “[He] made them aware that ‘You're still young Black men living in a world that says your voice may not be heard, or may not matter,’” she says. “In this day and time there’s still voter suppression — it’s mind-boggling to me. We're in 2021 and we still have these issues, but they were made aware so many decades ago.” While we can’t be sure what these men actually spoke about, the parallels between the present and past are undeniable. “They had their issues with one another, but they were respectful of each other's knowledge and talent,” Jamison-Tanchuck adds. The pendulum of friendship swings between uproarious laughter and impassioned disagreements – in turbulent and triumphant times, then, now and always.

Emma Fraser (@frazbelina) is a freelance television and film writer with words at Little White Lies, Vulture, SYFY FANGRRLS, Collider and more. She loves costume design, '90s teen TV and is currently attempting to learn German. 

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