Emmy and Oscar-winning actress Regina King is in uncharted waters.
“I am so excited and anxious – all the different forms of that word,” King tells us about unveiling her feature directorial debut One Night In Miami.
“Pull up a thesaurus and look up the word anxious and I am all of those things. We haven’t had the opportunity for screenings because of the pandemic.”
One Night In Miami, which debuts at the Venice Film Festival next week, charts a real meeting in the segregated South between iconic figures Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr) and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge).
The timely civil rights drama, snapped up by Amazon last month, originated with playwright and screenwriter Kemp Powers (Soul), whose stage play of the same name imagined the passionate conversation between the men that night. Amid raging social injustice, one question in particular becomes the focal point of their discussion: how do we achieve change and define a new world free of racial prejudice? It is a question that is still dominating 60 years later.
King – who has previously directed on TV series such as Scandal and This Is Us – first got wind of the script while she was in production on HBO’s Watchmen, for which she recently received her fifth Emmy nomination. It was love on first read.
“In terms of Kemp’s script, I had never heard or seen a story that so perfectly captured the black man’s experience in America. When it comes to conversations about black men, and stories about black men, vulnerability and strength are usually not words that are used together to describe that plight but they definitely work in concert here. That’s why a film like Moonlight was so beautiful and hit you so differently because you don’t often get the opportunity to see that vulnerability and strength at the same time.”
King moved quickly to convince the producers that she had to direct the story on screen.
“I decided in my mind that there was no one else that should tell this story other than a black person. I felt that as a black mother, daughter and niece that this was my son’s, father’s and uncle’s story and plight just as much as it was Jim Brown’s, Sam Cooke’s, Cassius Clay’s or Malcom X’s.”
The film’s central discussion around the nature of political and social resistance couldn’t be more apt amid widespread U.S. and global protests against police brutality and systemic racial injustice.
“We meet these men in the early 1960s around the time of the Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham by the KKK,” explains King, who won an Oscar in 2018 for her performance in Barry Jenkins’ civil rights-themed drama If Beale Street Could Talk.
“It was also the height of non-violent resistance, which was seen as the only acceptable form of protest. We meet these four men and what you realize is that non-violent resistance is not the only right way to do things. What is right is freedom and liberation, and so in their conversation, in their debates, I think we come to realize that there’s a space for all of those things together: all styles of how you resist are acceptable and necessary, if that makes sense? I’m not encouraging people to go out and hurt somebody, but I do feel that we’re all at a place now where people are speaking out and are not playing it safe. People are taking risks.”
For her ‘quadrumvirate’ of lead actors as she calls them, the pressure of playing such culturally iconic figures may have seemed daunting as well as inspiring.
“Of course when you’re playing a real person, there is a little concern that you want to honor that person’s life, but also that you don’t want the performance to be a caricature. You want it to be a true embodiment of that person. It was the actors’ job to do that research and dive as deeply as they could in getting the mannerisms and the dialect right, and they all did that. It was my job to make sure they stayed there, and to remind them where they’ve been and where they’re going.”
In terms of where the film is headed, King is hopeful the movie can have a theatrical life despite the pandemic.
“The plan is definitely to have a theatrical run but we don’t know what that theatrical run is going to look like. We don’t want to wait too long because I think the time is now for this film to come out. But we would like to honor it and give it some type of theatrical release.”
Because of COVID-19 travel complications, King and her lead actors won’t be in attendance at Venice or Toronto. Instead, they will patch in for virtual Q&As and press conferences. It’s a unique context for everyone and will take some getting used to.
“I’m honoured our film is premiering at Venice, it’s such a great platform, but something feels wicked that I won’t be able to be there,” King admits.
King will return to acting next, but it won’t be too long before she’s back in the director’s chair, she says.
“It works well for me to go back and forth between the two. All the directing that I’ve done for TV and the preparation for this has made me realize that I still have a lot to learn. But there is nothing more exciting than starting the process of learning.”
Producers are Jess Wu Calder and Keith Calder of Snoot Entertainment. Jody Klein, King and Powers are executive producers.