With One Night in Miami, Regina King emerges as a filmmaking force
About 20 years into her acting career, one that started as a child actor on the '80s sitcom 227, Regina King realized she wanted more. Over the years, from supporting turns in films like Jerry Maguire and Ray to regular roles in TV series including 24 and Southland, she started to see the job of a director as more than just giving orders to actors and crew members. Once she said out loud that filmmaking was something she wanted to pursue for herself, it felt possible: "There were a lot of people who embraced that idea."
Since 2013, the actress has won an Oscar and four Emmys for acting — all while carving out a side-gig as one of TV's most sought-out directors, working on popular shows like Scandal, This Is Us, and Insecure. Although she'd prepared for her feature directorial-debut to be a comedy she'd developed with her sister, King eventually was led down a different path, towards One Night in Miami.
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"I'm really interested in being able to tell a love story with a real historical event as the backdrop," says King, 49, prefacing why she was drawn to Kemp Powers' adaptation of his own 2013 play. The story takes place on the night in 1964 that boxer Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali) defeated Sonny Liston for the World Heavyweight Championship, and celebrated afterwards with activist Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke, and NFL star Jim Brown. King was floored by Powers' creation: "[It] truly captures the conversation and the reflections of the Black man's experience more than anything that I've ever seen."
Collaborating with Powers also allowed King to focus on the visual elements of the film, as the writer had already done all the research that needed to be done to accurately portray the story on stage, and on film. "He was like the Kemp-orpedia," King says with a laugh. "Any bit of research that I wanted to do, I didn't have to spend as much time on Google, looking it up, because he'd already done it."
When it came time to cast the four main roles in One Night in Miami, the director was in search of that same dedication: "I was looking for great actors who knew that they should be sleeping, breathing, drinking who they were playing every step of the way." King found that in Eli Goree (Riverdale), Kingsley Ben-Adir (High Fidelity), Leslie Odom Jr. (Hamilton), and Aldis Hodge (The Invisible Man), who play Clay, X, Cooke, and Brown, respectively.
King draws assured, vivid performances out of each, fitting them into her rich cinematic tapestry. "It was quite fantastic to be the fifth wheel," she says. "[The actors] knew the journey we were about to go on, that this was not a time to be doing any impersonations or caricatures.... This could've gone south quickly, but they trusted me to guide them, or lure them back, or caution them from going to some places. They listened, understood that the nuanced moments are the ones that capture the audience's hearts and ears."
The director is just as complimentary of the work done behind the scenes on One Night in Miami. Music producer Nick Baxter and supervising sound editor Andy Hay staged a key concert scene that "surpassed what we had planned," and without editor Tariq Anwar, "we wouldn't have the film that we have." Most notably though, after seeing how the national discussion on race began to mirror conversations in the movie, King appreciates how her producers matched her sense of urgency to finish the film this year. Sixty-six crew members all tested negative for COVID-19 and followed proper protocol to shoot the two scenes that needed to be completed during the pandemic. "We had a wonderful, special health team on board, to divide everyone up in zones, and we shot these scenes in the middle of a really stressful time," King says. "We had to exercise restraint, but we got it done, and I'm glad. I feel like the film is better."
Following a week of fall-festival launches in Venice and Toronto, the work seems to have paid off with a response that's been electric. One Night in Miami has built awards buzz across the board — with King a candidate to be the first Black woman ever nominated for the Best Director Oscar. (The film will be released in theaters on Dec. 25, before its Jan. 15 debut on Amazon Prime Video.) While stage-to-screen transitions are often knocked as too talky or small in scope, a criticism King knows may be unavoidable, the filmmaker imbues One Night in Miami with subtle technical choices that freshly play with the visuals and the sound, like a bird's-eye shot of the boxing ring match that gives the audience "an opportunity to see from above, from the heavens above, just what happens and all the pandemonium and excitement." The work the director got out of her actors is what she's most proud of, though. "Even if you feel like you're in a play — s---, it's a good one," says King. A pretty great movie, too.
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