Regina King on ‘One Night in Miami’ and Her Art
“One Night in Miami”, which will appear on Amazon Prime on Friday, is a fictional account of a real meeting of four legends in 1964. On February 24th of that year, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Malcolm met X a few hours after the boxer won his first world heavyweight championship. Although they shared ice in real life as if on screen, in the performance of the film they also listened to music and argued vigorously about their role in and goals of the civil rights movement.
In Malcolm’s humble room at the Hampton House, a Miami motel that was frequented by black guests, the acclaimed drama follows each of these men as they face life-changing choices in their political consciousness and professional career:
– Malcolm (played by Kingsley Ben-Adir) is about to leave the Nation of Islam, which he serves as the most charismatic minister, and for which he has recruited 22-year-old Cassius Clay.
– Clay (Eli Goree) plans to announce his affiliation with the Nation of Islam and his name change to Muhammad Ali the next morning.
– American athlete Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) is torn between his desire to make a difference as an actor on the big screen and his football career with the Cleveland Browns.
– Singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) maintains artistic independence and is one of the few black Americans to own her record label. He has collected dozen of top 40 hits, including in February: “A Change Is Gonna Come. ”
The film focuses on this evening; in real life, tragedy came quickly. By December, Sam Cooke would be dead and killed in a Los Angeles motel room. Malcolm would be murdered a few months later. And until 1967, Ali stood in front of jail and was effectively banned from boxing after being convicted of draft military service in the Vietnam War. Of the four, only Brown is still alive, who retired as the NFL leader in 1966 for a career in Hollywood.
“One Night in Miami” was launched in 2013 as a play by Kemp Powers (“Soul”), who also adapted the script. It was his rousing attempt to turn figures revered as monuments into three-dimensional characters that could be remembered as men.
Moved by Powers’ emphasis on intimacy over iconicity, actress Regina King wanted to tell the story on screen right away and made “One Night in Miami” her directorial debut. While King has directed episodes of television shows, she is best known for giving some of the most powerful performances on the big and small screen and winning multiple Emmys, especially for last year’s Watchmen where she starred Angela Abar, one Tulsa, played cop by day and a ninja nun by night. In 2019 she won an Oscar and a Golden Globe as a supporting actress for Barry Jenkins “If Beale Street Could Talk”.
This time the Oscar buzz around King is the best director. There is also talk of honors for the accomplishments she has cultivated, particularly Odom and Ben-Adir who are thrifty on screen. (Ben-Adir won a Gotham Award this month.) In a video interview, King discussed how she wanted to portray the men behind the legends and how her relationship with her 24-year-old son, Ian Alexander Jr., informed this film and why she needed it stopped completing the project during our summer of unprecedented racial protests. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
What drew you to this story originally?
In 2019 I read the play and then immediately after reading the script. But this issue has been present for blacks in America since our history. I also thought Kemp’s words were a love letter to the black’s experience. As a viewer, I feel like I don’t often get the opportunity to see our men on screen as we see them in real life.
These men were so iconic in the 1960s. How did you balance showing them on screen without being overly hagiographic?
Kemp’s work is not a biography of everyone in her life. This should have been a miniseries because these men’s lives were so full. It’s not a cradle-to-grave film. The intent was to capture the sides of these men that we cannot see. We tend to treat them like they’re almost gods. But while these men were larger than life, they also shared the same fears and worries as my father, uncles, and friends. So often do we get the opportunity to see the vulnerability that black men possess and their humanity. You cannot have true strength without vulnerability.
Younger people may have heard of Malcolm X or Muhammad Ali, but are less familiar with Jim Brown and Sam Cooke. How did you introduce them to a new generation?
The film is a quiet film, but as far as the subject matter is concerned, it is loud. I’m one of those people who feel these four men are timeless. Malcolm’s autobiography had an impact on my son, as it had on me in my 20s. But it’s a gamble. When you talk about the 20 things in the world, some of them may not be patient enough to sit down and just absorb it. Fortunately, I got to see my son vicariously to see the technology and the technology things that pique their interest. Even though it’s a historical piece, I still want it to be visually attractive, and thought that saturating with color is more likely to attract younger people’s attention than a muted palette. The color also represents the resilience of blacks. We still managed to smile, dance, laugh, love, even with all the things we face, only in daily life.
You filmed “Guardian” when you decided to direct One Night in Miami. How did this experience influence your making of this film?
The timing was perfect. Our entry point in “Watchmen” was the Tulsa massacre. We are tracking the pain Angela is in [her character] inherited from that event and the discoveries she made about herself and her family. For me, “One Night in Miami” is a companion. Depending on who you’re talking to or what book you’re reading, much of this story has been revised, left out, or simply ignored. But even if you look at my other work – in “American Crime” or “Seven Seconds” – these are the projects God has blessed me with and want to be a part of. I don’t really classify myself as a great speaker or Dr. King, no pun intended, but I feel like there are things that draw me consciously and subconsciously that have enabled me to use my art to tell the truth about performance.
You are one of the most famous actors of your generation. How did your background as an actor and television director help you get certain achievements out of your cast?
TV moves much faster; You have more preparation time with film. But what I’ve done here is directing the television rather than the film, is to have Kemp by my side throughout the process. Most of the time with films, the writers are left out, but I thought it would be a disservice not to have him as part of the whole process. The writer is very involved in my experience on television, so I saw the benefit of it.
One of the things that interested me about his script is that it’s a play by an actor. And as an actor, of course, I’ll be focusing on what I believe is an opportunity for thespians to really immerse themselves. And as an actor I understand what it takes to get into the emotional space and “what is easy” for one actor is not necessarily easy for another, how one communicates is not the same for another. I am sensitive to all of these things.
2020 was an unprecedented year in many ways. How did the protests against the Covid-19 pandemic and racial justice affect your making of this film?
We started filming in January 2020 and left New Orleans in February because we always wanted to shoot two more scenes in Los Angeles. And then Covid hit, so we thought we were going to pause and not be hasty because these conversations always happen. We felt like they weren’t going anywhere. But we couldn’t have known that the uprisings would happen. So when we were in that powder keg moment [in June]I started talking to Eli, Leslie and the other actors and they all said, “Oh, I have to do it.” As filmmakers, we felt that it was our responsibility to be safe and that once LA opened up to filming again, we could make a really small footprint and finish those two scenes almost like a skeleton crew.
I was surprised at how sharp there is between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke in your film, as they disagree on what role they should play in the civil rights movement. In our current political moment, what do you hope for from the complicated relationships these men have with each other and with Ali and Brown?
For me, watching Malcolm and Sam was more of a reminder that all of these perspectives must exist to actually set movement in motion. And when you get to their conversation about social responsibility, those are just two approaches. But it was also necessary that Cassius and Jim help each of them see each other’s perspective.
What I find so beautiful about One Night in Miami is that both Sam and Malcolm realize, “Yeah, I shouldn’t have said that.” They don’t necessarily say, “I’m sorry.” But they say in so many ways, “I see you, man. And I hear you and I feel you “And that’s a beautiful thing that these actors capture. I just hope that this comes across and is received. That you can discuss with love and respect.