Movies

Regina King On Her Brilliant Directorial Debut, ‘One Night In Miami…’

Regina King has been part of this writer’s entertainment viewing since he was 10 years old, back when she played Brenda Jenkins on 227, a show I watched religiously. (I was a big Marla Gibbs fan from watching The Jeffersons so of course I was going to watch her new vehicle.) The reason any of this is brought up is because, at that time, television shows featuring Black casts were plentiful on primetime network TV, which obviously included King’s. Then, by the mid-’90s, they were for the most part gone. And I’ve always wondered what King’s opinion was on this. And, it turns out, she’s thought about that a lot, too.

Gosh, what a run for Regina King over the last couple of years. In early 2019 she won an Oscar for If Beale Street Could Talk. Then she won a fourth Emmy for starring in one of the best television series of the last decade, Watchmen. And now comes her feature film directorial debut, the wonderful One Night in Miami, which has received almost universal acclaim (and starts streaming via Amazon Prime this Friday).

Written by Kemp Powers (who also wrote Pixar’s Soul), it’s loosely based on a true story of the night Muhammad Ali (then using the name Cassius Clay) beat Sonny Liston in what would be one of the famous boxing matches of all time. Later that night, Ali (Eli Goree) hung out with Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). Not a lot is known about what the foursome actually discussed that night. When Jim Brown talks about it today, it’s usually some form of, “We had a great time.” So the dialogue is imagined, but it creates a fascinating case study of four famous men with different ideas of how to use their fame. (For instance, in the film, Malcolm X has very different opinions than Jim Brown, who wants to star in movies.)

Ahead, King talks about why it was this particular project that got her in the director’s chair for the first time. And she talks about who might represent these four people today, if they were all in a room together talking, which, she admits, is kind of an impossible question to answer, except for the inclusion of LeBron James.

(For context, the day we spoke was after the events of January 6th, which makes even informal greetings hard to do these days.)

How are you?

I am… You know…

I told myself I wasn’t going to ask that because there’s no good answer to that right now and now I feel like a fool.

No, I’ve been telling myself that for the past year now and I still say, “How are you?” We’ve been conditioned to ask those three words.

I’ve been doing this job for a long time now, but I still get anxious when I talk to people I have literally been watching since I was like 10 years old, when you were on 227. In a, “Oh, this is someone that’s been part of my life for a very long time,” kind of way.

[Laughs] Yeah, I feel like a relative.

Yeah that whole NBC Saturday night lineup were like relatives of mine.

[Laughs] Right.

One Night in Miami… what a wonderful movie you’ve created.

Thank you. Thank you.

I am curious, this is your first feature film you’ve directed. Were you set to direct anything ever before? I know you’ve done TV, but as far as feature films?

Yeah, there was a bit of that. There were things that had come my way, but I didn’t really respond to. I’m always reading things as a director, the same way I read things as an actor. Are they things that are interesting to me as an audience member? I’m always reading it as an audience member, and so this was one that truly made me sit up in my seat. It was on the page. Kemp [Powers] had done most of the heavy lifting. While it might’ve been 2019 when I was reading it, it was just this time then – as it is now; whether it’s 1980s, ’60s, ’50s, ’40s – these conversations have been conversations within black circles for so long that they’re exhausting. But here was a way to have a private conversation publicly, which I felt was necessary.

Have you talked to Jim Brown? Because every time I’ve heard him talk about he just says something like, “Oh, we had a wild time.” At least I’ve never heard him getting into the specifics of it. Or does that even matter?

He doesn’t. The only thing that I think has been said about that night, from him, is that it was a good time and that they ate vanilla ice cream.

So to take four of the most famous people of the last century and put them in a room together, which they actually were, and then just create these conversations between them, what were you expecting the reaction to be to something like this? Obviously it’s been going over very well.

Well, if we, as a film team, did a great job at taking Kemp’s work and bringing it to life as passionately as he brought those words to his pen to paper, then I felt like there was definitely an opportunity for the audience to receive it the way I did when I read it. I can’t imagine anyone reading the script and not being moved and not feeling like, wow, I’ve never seen these men like this. And I’ve been seeing these men all of my life. And so I am happy that people are receiving it the way I did upon my first read.

Is there an equivalent today to these four people?

I mean, this is one of those questions that is truly subjective, right? It’s depending on who you asked. Someone could quickly say four people who they think and we might be like, oh my God, you are actually comparing them to Malcolm X? Are you serious? You know, but to each his own. Someone asked me that question yesterday and I just threw some names out there. But I did because I was asked that question and I was in the hot seat, but I tried to think about it afterwards and I still had a tough time coming up with 2020 equivalent, or 2021 equivalent to those four men. But perhaps, you know, one of those people was like a LeBron James.

Well, LeBron is a good answer. He’s very famous and very socially involved.

Out of the things that Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown were able to accomplish with their careers, and then what they accomplish with their platforms. You know, LeBron is about the closest thing to it, you know?

It was really interesting what you did with Jim Brown in this movie. He just wants to make some movies and wasn’t as into what some of the other people in the room were saying.

Well, I think the thing that was powerful to us as filmmakers, the reasoning that Jim Brown left the NFL, sure, it was hard on his body, but being told that you can’t do what you dream to do? Athletes now? People go out of their way to get that athlete into their frame, where Jim was put in a position where he was being told he had to choose either or.

Was there an episode of television you directed, or maybe a film that you had been in before, that you leaned on for how to make this?

I don’t know if I can think of one film, in particular, that I felt like our set is similar to. And I think I can pretty much say that about everything that I’ve been part of. They’ve all been unique in their own way. Part of what makes it hard to call out a favorite, you kind of feel like they all have things about them that make them stand out, for different reasons. So I always say my favorite project is the one I’m working on now. I mean, I would say that there are a lot of things that I’ve picked up along the way: that I employed when having this first film, navigating, you know. You learn the good things to do are equally as important as seeing things that don’t go well and saying, okay, yeah, I will never do that.

Something I’ve really wanted to ask you about — I mentioned 227 earlier — when I think about watching network television in the ’80s, maybe around half of the prime time shows I watched had Black casts. I watched 227, I watched Amen, I watched The Jeffersons. And I’ve always wondered about that because I think that made a big difference in pop culture and, as a kid, it had an effect. And then they all went away and I’ve always curious what you thought about that.

Well…

If I worded that weird, which is very possible, I’m sorry…

Oh no, no, no, no, no. I definitely think about that. I remember, because, like we talked about, the Saturday night lineup. And I think The Cosby Show came on a weeknight, or something like that. And A Different World was after that. And we were just in a space where there were a lot of shows that had Black actors in it, or subject matter that really highlighted the Black experience. We had Martin and The Jamie Foxx Show and that rolled right into Spike Lee and John Singleton. And the late ’80s and early ’90s definitely seemed as though we were on our way to this space in cinema and TV that really was going to continue to include Black people in the stories and star Black people in the stories and these stories that are Black stories. And that seemed to be happening. And then, just like all of a sudden, like ’93, ’94 rolls around, and it just was completely gone.

You kind of joked earlier, oh, we were a relative. But I was an only child living in Missouri and having those shows on in prime time had an effect on me. And like you said, by the mid ’90s they were gone. I really do wonder if that had an effect on people?

I do. Things started slowing up around that time, and so here we are again, in a time where there are more outlets to tell stories. And so we’re starting to see that pick up again, so I hope that this is not “a moment.” I feel like we won’t allow it to be. But we’ll see.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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