Regina King and the stars of her feature directorial debut One Night In Miami piped into the Venice Film Festival this afternoon to discuss the very timely picture that’s inspired by a real-life 1964 meeting of friends Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke. The press screening I attended this morning was as full as is possible under social distancing protocols and there was a healthy dose of applause as the credits rolled.
The events of the film take place the night that Clay (before he became Muhammad Ali) defeated Sonny Liston to take over the title of World Heavyweight Boxing Champion. At the Hampton House Motel in one of Miami’s historically black neighborhoods, he celebrates victory with three of his closest friends. The work originated with playwright and screenwriter Kemp Powers (Soul), whose eponymous stage play imagined the passionate, topical conversation between the men.
Powers, who was also virtually present in Venice today, said he was inspired to write One Night In Miami after reading a paragraph in in Mike Marqusee’s book on Ali and the 60s, Redemption Song, which made fleeting reference to the four men gathering. “It was like discovering the Black Avengers,” Powers enthused.
The quartet in the film addresses the raging social injustice of the time and their own responsibilities. Given the current situation in the U.S., there is a clear relevance to today’s world.
King noted, “For black Americans, unfortunately, those conversations were happening 60 years ago and are also happening now. When we started filming it, did we know that we’d be in this powder keg moment that we’re in right now? Absolutely not. But the conversations were relevant. It feels like one of those things where it was meant to be, even though our intention was not to have it happen when an uprising is going on in our country.”
Given the COVID-related closures, King said there were initial thoughts of pushing the film’s release back, but then “George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery had been murdered and… we were like, ‘This needs to happen now, this needs to come out now’.” One Night In Miami will go from Venice to Toronto and then Zurich. Amazon Studios has global rights and a theatrical release is planned King recently told Deadline, but a date has not been set.
When it does release, said King, “Maybe we’re lucky and we’re going to have the opportunity to be a piece of art out there that moves the needle in the conversation for real transformative change.”
Asked about being a black female director and whether this film can help open doors, King said it could depend on the reception. “That’s how things seems to work. If a woman gets a shot and does not succeed, it shuts things down for years to come. I am so grateful for our film to be part of the festival, but I really, really want it to perform well. There’s so much talent out there. So if One Night In Miami gets it done here you’ll get to see a lot more of us.”
For King, Powers “wrote a love letter to the black man’s experience.” She added, “You are witnessing thoughts and emotions from luminaries but they are before it’s Malcolm x and Cassius Clay, they are men first.” The film offers an “exploration and a celebration” of the men as they navigate their own paths in life, but “the thing they have in common — no matter how much money they have or don’t have, what their backgrounds are — they are black men,” King added.
Powers was asked about the film’s references to economic and political freedom and mused, “Is it better to tear the system down or work within the system?” It’s a conflict the writer said he struggles with often. “There are times in life when you have to work within the system and sometimes things just have to go.”
He continued, “It’s important to remember all four of these men want pretty much the same things but have different ways of going about it.” One of the key debtaes in the film is between Cooke and Malcolm X, “and they both make pretty damn cogent points,” Powers noted.
Further, he said, “It’s a question of what is the social responsibility or burden of black artists. Not everyone wants to take that on and I understand that, but that burden is always going to be there. These are four men who always innately understood that by nature of their status they had that burden and they willingly took that burden on. They knew that everything they did represented not just them, but their people and they embraced it.”
Aldis Hodge, who plays Jim Brown, said he was drawn to the project because “as a black man, these are the conversations I have in my daily life. The beautiful thing about art is you do have the opportunity to influence real progress. In moments like right now, it can help people understand conversations and how to have conversations. My ambition is to help people know how to talk to us and see us and relate to our pain and for commmunities to come together. It’s quite an opportunity to bridge a gap of confution. There are a lot of conversations being held, but also a lot of disconnect.”
Eli Goree, who plays Clay, recounted that his mother told him the film brought up real memories of the 60s when “all these guys had an impact on the overall pride and self-worth of African American and diasporic black people. She thought that this film captured that realness and that truth but also the beauty of these people and the fullness of expression and ability to be everything that they were, good, bad and in between, but still be beautiful.”
Malcolm X portrayer Kingsley Ben-Adir added, “The vulnerability is the first thing that jumps off the page. You become very aware of the opportunity to explore these men and show a side we haven’t seen before.”
As this is an election year, the team was asked about effecting change through art. Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr, who plays Cooke, explained, “If you can believe it, we were not really thinking about how that show would affect the political situation. As an actor, black, white, anything else, the first goal is to be part of something excellent. The rest of it takes care of itself. How much it’s a part of the conversation, you don’t have control over. The audience is the other half of that conversation.”
Producers are Jess Wu Calder and Keith Calder of Snoot Entertainment. Jody Klein, King and Powers are executive producers.
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