Regina King has built her award-winning acting career on a rock-solid foundation of memorable roles, and, after a host of small screen directing gigs on shows like Southland, This Is Us and Insecure, her smash directorial feature debut, One Night in Miami—which made its virtual premiere on King’s 50th birthday—shows she’s building just as sturdy a big screen directing career too. The film, adapted from Kemp Powers’ stage play, reimagines a night in which four icons meet—Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Malcolm X—and discuss their roles in much-needed societal change.
DEADLINE: The film opens not in Miami, but at Wembley Stadium, for the bout with Henry Cooper. It’s how we are introduced to Muhammed Ali, as Cassius Clay, before meeting the others. How did these scenes help you to begin telling this story?
REGINA KING: The first draft that I read, that’s how Kemp introduced all of our legends. And it was one of the things that I immediately thought was clever. Before I actually met with Kemp, I bought the play. After, I read the screenplay just to see what things he took out, what things he put in, how he chose to open it up. I really appreciated what he did, not only because it opened the story up, but it also quickly humanized the four legends. That’s the thing that I think is particularly special or what connects the audience is they’re going in thinking that they’re going to see a story that is maybe loose biographies on the four men and then they realize, as an audience member, that they are actually a fly on the wall for a private conversation between four men, outside of their titles.
DEADLINE: Kemp adapted his play for the film, and it becomes more than just a play on screen, partly thanks to the choices of interiors and colors you use. What guided you in making these decisions?
KING: A few things. One, the dialogue is the star of the film and just so powerful. I felt these conversations are conversations that we, as Black people, have been having far before 1964. And the thing that really struck me is that the four legends on this night were just all so young. So, I really wanted it to appeal to the younger generation. I felt like one of the things that was a really important way to keep them in it, visually, is color saturation. I love films where filmmakers choose to use palettes and tones that are more close to a time period, that are a little more muted. But in this case, having a 20-something-year-old [son], I do know that they have short attention spans and you have to get their attention quickly. And that was one of the things that crossed my mind.
There’s a film, In the Mood for Love, that I just felt was so lush and so rich. I remember that I had to go back to watch the film because I couldn’t remember what it was about. I remembered, obviously yes, it was a love story, but I remember the images, that’s what stuck with me. So, I felt we could capture the same energy that I was left with, in our film. It would make sense, because Black people, we’re so colorful. We laugh, we dance, we love, we smile; even with all of the tragic things and violations that have been against us throughout history, we still manage to do all those things. Color also represents that. So that was very clear to me.
There’s a man, Jacob Lawrence, his paintings also were inspiration to capture that energy, and also movement. While we were in a room for sometimes almost 20 minutes, I still didn’t want the camera to feel static, but I didn’t want it to be a distraction. And when I explained this to my DP, Tami Reiker, she had the great idea of using jib arms to shoot everything so that we never have a moment where the camera is still, but we don’t have that swimmy feeling that you can sometimes with the Steadicam.
DEADLINE: You also recreate the iconic underwater portrait of Muhammad Ali in color. Was this something you knew you were going to do from the beginning?
KING: Yeah, absolutely. We say at the beginning, ‘inspired by true events,’ and that was just an iconic photo. I don’t really know many people who haven’t seen it, but we always see it in black and white. And I just felt like, wow, this is a powerful way to jump off the story, because that moment comes once we land in Miami, and it’s still one of my favorite shots in the film. There’s something very soothing about it. In a way, it’s the calm before the storm. I say that, not saying that what comes next is dark in any way, but the audience doesn’t know what it’s in store for. You kind of feel like you’re going to see this film that’s about Cassius. And that’s kind of the point, the Trojan horse, you come in thinking one thing and you leave with something so much greater.
DEADLINE: When you look back to your first directing gig on Southland, what did you carry from that? Was there something there you were eager to learn that’s now maybe second nature to you?
KING: I feel like I carry things with me from every project that I do, whether it’s as an actor or as a director, and in the past 10 years or so I’ve been able to consciously employ those things. It doesn’t matter which one I’m doing. So with Southland in particular, I was really lucky in the fact that [executive producers] Chris Chulack and John Wells, and Jimmy Muro and Dana Gonzales, our DPs, were so excited about me wanting to add this hyphenate to my name. They really just opened their arms and their prep process up to me that I was quickly able to pick up all of these great jewels from artists that I had been working with, and respected. I know all of them are men and they’re all fathers, they truly love our medium, but they had a patience and a willingness to want to teach.
Nelson McCormick was also a director that we had often that was very much present in allowing me to see his process. One of the things that he shared with me that I thought was invaluable, and it’s kind of proven to be so, is that he always felt like I would be going far beyond Southland. So, he said, of course I know all of the crew members, I know their names because we’d been together for four years at that point, but he said that I should make sure that I know everyone’s name, know what it is that they do, and if I am really struck by their work ethic or what they brought to the table, to always make sure I take a moment to let them know, because people want to be seen. He told me that, and it really stuck with me. So whenever I would do an episodic assignment, I would fly myself there beforehand, before my prep started, sometimes even like a couple months before, just to get to know the crew so that I could know their names, and I could understand their positions and how they are regarded within the system that they’re already in. Just to observe and to make sure that they knew that I understood that I’m the guest coming in, and I respect what it is that you do, and know that we can’t reach a finish line without your skill.
DEADLINE: What about when you were 14 and worked on 227 alongside actress Marla Gibbs and director Gerren Keith? What did you take from that?
KING: Oh my gosh, the word that I have to use for Gerren Keith is “great”. He is just absolutely an amazing human being. What I learned about Gerren, I was able to learn from watching other directors come on to our show and just the difference in how they ran the ship. Gerren has such an amazing ability to have this commanding presence, but also be graceful and as a kid, you really don’t know how to articulate that, you just know what you’re feeling. I just remember as a kid, I just was so happy when Gerren was directing. I wanted Gerren to direct every episode, and it doesn’t work that way, but I just remember that. I just remember that I felt like I performed better when he was there. I felt like he really saw me, where sometimes some of the other directors, I felt like, as the kids, we got on their nerves, or they wished it wasn’t a scene with the kids. I felt that, and it’s funny because sometimes you don’t go back to memories until you’re having experiences later in life. And I just remember appreciating Gerren so much more as an adult.
Then with Marla, I learned what being a consummate professional was. The importance of hitting your mark, the importance of just knowing your lines—you would be amazed how many actors don’t still know their dialogue. The little things are humongous. When you’re learning those things, at 13, 14, 15 years old, they kind of become part of your DNA, and those little things are priceless.
DEADLINE: You advocate for gender parity and racial equality in Hollywood. What have you learned there?
KING: Well, one, if we’re continuing to only employ just a certain group of people, we’re missing out on just so much talent. Two, that it’s our responsibility to create pipelines. There are a lot of women that are builders and engineers and would be great in the construction department on films, but don’t even know that exists. There are a lot of people of color that don’t know that exists. So, it’s got to feel like it’s our responsibility to create those pipelines. But I was recently talking to [costume designer] Ruth Carter, and Francine [Jamison-Tanchuck] who was the costume designer on One Night In Miami, and [fellow costume designer] Sharen Davis, they’re doing that.
One of the things that I really took away from the time that I made that proclamation on that Golden Globes stage [in 2019] to now, one of the things that I realized that I was guilty of, is that I was speaking of gender parity and neglecting to acknowledge the fact that gender parity, if we are truly speaking about gender parity, is not just male or female, and I’m learning, and I’m understanding that better now. On the film, if we were not, as a filmmaking team, actively trying to create gender parity, we would not have ended up with a crew that predominantly identifies as a person of color, or that does not identify as cis white male.
I don’t think that I would have even considered that I was not being inclusive of everyone if I didn’t challenge myself to actually achieve gender parity. So, I understand now that gender parity means a different thing than what I said that night.