There was no pre-Zoom huddle about wardrobe, yet fellow filmmakers Regina King and Gina Prince-Bythewood both pipe in virtually on an early February afternoon, sporting sweatshirts embossed with phrases appropriate to the conversation they would have.
Prince-Bythewood’s reads: “A credit to my people.”
“We’ve got to remind ourselves,” says Prince-Bythewood, from her home in Los Angeles.
“Exactly,” offers the One Night in Miami director, also in L.A., before borrowing a line from renowned writer James Baldwin: “Our crown has already been bought and paid for, all we have to do is wear it.”
Prince-Bythewood, 51, has ostensibly signed on to interview King, 50, an Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress turned first-time feature director with the Amazon Studios drama, but it very quickly becomes a back-and-forth about everything from the politics of ambition to the challenges of raising Black sons. The two have known each other casually for years — in fact, it was the Old Guard director who recommended King’s One Night in Miami directory of photography, Tami Reiker — but they’ve grown considerably closer during the pandemic. They’re both a part of what is now a standing Saturday Zoom gathering with an enviable group of Black female artists who converse about anything and everything, according to its participants.
Still, the opportunity for something a little more intimate presented itself on this day because, once again, King has been thrust into the awards conversation. After more than three decades in front of the camera, her breakthrough came with back-to-back roles in 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk and 2019’s Watchmen, which earned King her first Oscar and fourth Emmy, respectively, and the full attention of the industry. She followed up by moving behind the lens, directing an adaptation of Kemp Powers’ stage imagining of conversations among four prominent Black men — Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Malcolm X — for Amazon. Her deft handling of the material scored widespread praise and could, if all goes right, make her the first Black female directing nominee at April’s Academy Awards.
So, fittingly, Prince-Bythewood, whose other directorial credits include Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights, kicked off the hourlong chat with a discussion of Black excellence. — LACEY ROSE
GINA PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD It’s interesting that you’re wearing that shirt because it’s one of the first things I wanted to talk about. I don’t know if you saw it, but Serena Williams just dropped that incredible flex …
REGINA KING I didn’t.
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD OK, so, she’s going through her trophy room, and first of all there’s so many that she’s trying to remember, “Wait, how many French Opens did I win?” And then there was a second-place trophy, and she’s like, “Ah, nope, no second place in here, we don’t do second place,” which is my mentality, no doubt. For the last couple of years, you’ve been humming at this different level, and it’s always been building to that, but I want to know, do you feel that? That you are touching greatness right now?
KING I guess I have a hard time with phrases like that. Because what is that? It’s subjective. There are moments that I feel like I’ve always been great. (Laughs.) And then there are moments that I feel like there’s no such thing as greatness being a certain thing. Sometimes I look at people like Serena or Beyoncé, and I don’t understand how you can actually sleep and be able to put out what they put out. Like, how do you have the time to be you?
KING Then I think of people like Chadwick Boseman, and I’m like, “He’s the best of who we are, I mean, as human beings.” It almost feels like that is a whole other level of [greatness] because his heart was just so big and he managed to live so selflessly. I remember the last time I saw him and knowing now what he knew then and how he was able to make me feel like the most special person in that moment, that working with me would be at the top of his list.
KING And after we finished talking, how he just stopped and held my hand and looked into my eyes, and in that moment, he made me feel so special. And to have a heart big enough to do that, knowing that I’m probably not going to see him again, is a level of selflessness that I do know. So, back to your original question of do I realize that I am operating on a level that feels comparable to what greatness may look like, I guess I don’t know.
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD I rarely use the word “great” …
KING Yeah, I know. (Laughs.)
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD But the other thing is, any time any of us, as Black women, even speak of it — I mean, think about Serena, who said early in her career, “I want to be number one,” and people came at her hard.
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD And said she was arrogant. But there’s nothing wrong with that ambition. That ambition is good. And for what we do, the difference between good and great is miniscule. And it’s those who take it, just do the little extra. And so, with Chadwick, his extra was his heart and selflessness. And I know I’m throwing a big word on you, but for those of us on the outside, it’s a special thing to watch because you now have an assumption of greatness. When you do something, we are assuming it’s going to be up here (holds her hand high), which is pressure, of course — and some run away from that kind of pressure and let it crush them, but you seem to thrive on that.
KING Yeah. I feel like just as Black women, we are so conditioned to not feel that it’s OK to want to be great. Hence how I came into my whole response when you asked that question. But also, something I find often with Black women is that you give us a little window, we’re going to kick it all the way open and take that moment. And sometimes it can be perceived as taking all the air out of the room or, “Wow, she is so big, she’s so [loud].” But it’s also the very thing that makes us unique; it’s the history of what the Black woman has had to endure that has become part of our DNA. So when you see that window just crack open, you push through.
KING I know you come from a family that also embraces and celebrates being a Black woman, but when you go out of the comfort of your family, of your own home, Black women are the least celebrated human beings on the planet. So, when you hear people [say], “Well, why are they excluding other people out of the conversation or out of that praise or another person is not worthy of that praise, too?” We’re not saying that, it’s just that you have never praised us, so we’ve got to create a space that’s just for us because no one seems to want to include us in theirs, even though, going back to history, we’ve taken care of other people’s children after we’ve had our children taken away. There is something very powerful about the love that a Black woman provides. And that is the DNA we’re connected to.
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD And all of us at some point are looking in the mirror and hating what we see because of what we’ve been pushed and taught. You get those questions often, like, “Knowing what you know now, what would you tell your 16-year-old self?” But the fight that I have to tell our stories and center us in our stories, knowing how fucking hard it is, and to sit in these rooms with people sitting across from me telling me that they don’t get it or the stories don’t matter, I’m fighting for that little 16-year-old girl. I feel like I’ve been in a sustained fight for 25 years in this industry.
KING Oh yeah.
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD And of course, I’ve had great victories, but with that, there’s some soul-crushing shit that went into it, too. There’s so few of us who have been able to crack through. And as you said, when that little crack is there, it’s not just pushing through that with all our weight but then holding it open and reaching back and making sure more of us can get through there.
KING It’s such a delicate line to walk because you don’t want to express what you feel in a way that it deters people from wanting to actually listen or be an ally. I find myself constantly thinking as I’m talking to make sure I’m choosing my words wisely and still being honest to myself. Because I understand that in order for us to actually witness a change in our lifetime, we have to express how we feel, who we are, but also do it with grace so that we can receive all of the different people who are needed to truly make that shift happen.
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD Listen, I haven’t reached greatness yet, but I always reach for it. And we’ve got to have that mentality. We have to show up, and we can’t fail so that others can come after us. And it’s interesting because I said that in an interview, and I got pushback that that sounded a little arrogant. And again, it was that thing of people not understanding what it is for us to navigate this industry. You have to be everything. You have to be graceful, you have to fight. … You’re like a shark.
KING (Hums Jaws theme.)
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD Who’s your crew? The people who will watch your stuff, who will be honest with you, who will champion you when you need it?
KING My mother, my son and my sister are those people. My sister, Reina, is in the industry, but she’s keeping it real. And my mother is definitely grounding, always pushing me to dig a little deeper emotionally. And then my son, Ian, he’s 25, but in some ways he’s 12 and in other ways he’s 92. (Laughs.) So I have a really strong triad that helps me to hold myself accountable and be honest with how I’m feeling in the moment. Because sometimes I feel myself trying to push the emotion down. During the pandemic, I’ve discovered just how much pushing the emotion down away, protecting myself, that I’ve I been doing — I don’t think I’ve cried more since I was probably 14. It’s been cathartic in a lot of ways.
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD So much of what I do, too, is influenced by my sons and how they view me. I want them to be proud of me — to be able to brag about their mom. You used the word “grounding,” and that’s them because they’re so honest. I was more scared to show them The Old Guard than anyone. What if they were like, “This is corny, Mom, your action sucks”? Also, so much of what we do is being away from them. And so, if I’m going to be away, it’s got to mean something, it’s got to be about something.
KING A thousand percent. Ian has seen three or four cuts of One Night in Miami, and I remember the first time I was like, “So the color hasn’t been done, this is just my first [cut] …” And then I was like, “I can’t believe I am doing all of these disclaimers to this child.” (Laughs.) But what he thought meant so much. So often you’re asked, “What do you want your legacy to be?” And I’m like, “I don’t fucking know. I’m trying to get through Tuesday.” But I guess that’s what you want: You want your young men to be proud of you because, in a lot of ways, they are your legacy. And if they are taking pride in you and what you’re putting out there, that’s going to transfer to how they move in life.
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD Right. I was offered something before Old Guard, I’m not going to say the name of it, but it was a famous book, and the first one made a ton of money. And they came at me hard, and I kept turning it down because I just didn’t respect [the material]. But they kept coming with more money and more money, and I was really saddened when my older son was like, “Mom, you can’t turn that down. You see how much money that is.” I was like, “Oh my God, where did I go wrong? Don’t you see the projects I have done, there is nothing in this realm. I couldn’t even take you to the premiere of this because I’d be embarrassed.” So clearly I need to do a little more work. (Laughs.) But hopefully the fact that he saw what I turned down settled in because he wants to do music, and I need him to have that same mentality of, you’re putting something into the world, you should have something to say. You can’t put out bullshit even though I know you’re 19 and you’re still trying to find your voice. I’m hoping I’ve imparted enough that you do understand that what we do with our pen and our camera has so much power.
KING Ian is in music as well. He’s producing songs and he’s written lyrics for other people, but now he’s finally starting to write his own lyrics and actually singing.
KING Yeah, which has been really interesting — watching him finding himself, and he still is. And with some lyrics he’d written, I was like, “Whoa, whoa.” But that’s [as his] mom, so I have to go, “OK, pause, take it in. He is expressing what he is feeling right now in this moment, and his expression, his passion, his feelings should not be squelched.” It was a good lesson for me to step back and not be a mom and all, “Oh my God, you’re going to put that out there?” Like, no, listen to what he’s saying. It’s not easy being 20-something going through heartbreak. I’ve been there before, girl. (Laughs.)
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD And in the way that we bring our lens to our work, that is what our boys are doing. I’m not living his life; I’m not going through life as a 19-year-old Black man in this time. For me, it wasn’t until The Old Guard where journalists asked me about what my Black female lens means. Do you feel you are bringing that to your work? And as a director, do you feel like your Black female lens brings something totally different?
KING I’ve been asked that question as well, Gina, and you know how I’ve answered it? “Absolutely. But what my Black female brings to it is different than what Gina’s Black female lens brings to it.” We could tell a story that could be about the same subject matter but be a different perspective. So, when I get hit with that question, I challenge that person to understand that: one, you would never ask a white male director that question; and two, that that is the reason why we need more [of us]. So many stories are told through the white male gaze — they feel so familiar all the time because we’ve gotten all of their different perspectives. We’ve gotten more different white male perspectives than we’ve gotten different Black female perspectives or different Asian male perspectives. It is unfair to try to put Gina and Regina in the same box just because we are both Black and female.
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD I don’t know what it is going to take for the industry to understand we are not a monolith. But the one thing I get excited about as these years progress — and again, the numbers when you really think about it are still dismal — is just the different types of movies, the diversity of subject matter and voices and lenses that we’re starting to see. That’s what’s exciting to me. I think about the movie Miss Juneteenth. I don’t know if you saw it.
KING I haven’t gotten a chance yet.
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD [Channing Godfrey Peoples] brought me into this world that I had no idea existed, this Southern Black beauty pageant. But it was that that was so exciting: I could’ve never made that movie, whereas Love & Basketball was my life, so I was able to bring that. And One Night in Miami, yes, it’s about four Black men, but it’s about so much more than that. Give me just one thing that proved the importance of you being in the director’s chair for that movie?
KING When I read the script, I saw my son in these conversations. I could hear him and his Black friends. Growing up, I definitely had more Black friends than anything else. Sure, I had white friends and a couple Mexican friends, but the majority of my friends were Black. And for my son, it’s like the rainbow coalition, his friends. And when he was younger, he was always paying attention to our conversations, and he asked me, “Why when you guys talk” — you guys being adults — “do you always have to ask what color someone was?” And I was just like, “Wow, OK,” and I said, “because it helps to put things in context.” He didn’t know what I meant, and I tried to explain it, but he really didn’t get it. He was around 11 or 12 at that time. In high school is when he started to understand and see it in context. Around the 11th grade, his rainbow coalition started to shift to be more Black.
KING And it was because certain things were happening in conversations that were making him go, “Woo, OK, this doesn’t feel right.” Certain things that some of the white boys would say that he was like, “Yo, you shouldn’t feel comfortable saying that.” And the fact that they were made him feel like, “OK, well, I am clearly doing something that is misleading because they think that that can actually come out of their mouths.” And then his first time getting pulled over, having that experience. And don’t get me wrong, he still has friends of all colors, but he started to see some nights it needed to just be me and my brothers. And so having witnessed that journey for him, I could hear that these were possible conversations they were having. And they were conversations I know my father and my uncle were having. But also, me, being a celebrity, I could relate to the conversations from a space of, “What is your social responsibility supposed to be when you have a platform? Am I Black enough? Am I too Black?” Just having those conversations with, like, Tisha [Campbell] and Tichina [Arnold], and I mention them because they are the ones I’ve known the longest in this business — since we were teenagers. So, I really connected to [the script] on an emotional level, and when I met Kemp [Powers], the first thing I said was, “I feel like this is a love letter to the Black man.” And he was like, “You get it.”
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD I’ve said it before, but I loved the film.
KING Thank you, sis.
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD I love that you did it, and I know we don’t do it for [this], but I love the love that’s coming at you and the respect for you as a director. You made this jump, and obviously you’ve been [directing] TV, but this was a jump, and it never felt like a leap — it felt like just a step that you took. I’m just incredibly proud of you, but I also feel like, “Uh-oh, did I miss my chance for us to work together?”
KING Oh no girl, it’s got to happen. You know I am never going to stop being an actress. I like to act the fool too much. (Laughs.)
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD All right, good, I’m writing now …
Conversation edited for length and clarity.
The Rise (And Rise) of Regina King
Before settling in behind the camera, King built a career that brought her Emmy and Oscar gold
King’s Hollywood career began as a teen, when she landed a starring role as Marla Gibbs’ daughter, Brenda, on the hit 1980s sitcom 227 (pictured), which aired for five seasons on NBC.
Boyz n the Hood (1991)
Eager to break out of the sitcom mold, King scored a role in John Singleton’s 1991 drama Boyz n the Hood. “I knew I was so much more than Brenda, and I just needed an opportunity to show it,” King has said.
Jerry Maguire (1996)
At 25, she played Cuba Gooding Jr.’s shrewd, supportive, tough-talking wife in the 1996 hit Jerry Maguire. “I saw that this was the time to be looked at as a woman, not as this girl,” King has since said.
King played a detective on five seasons of the underrated cop drama from John Wells. She also made her directorial debut on the show, helming an episode in 2013.
American Crime (2015)
She appeared in all three seasons of John Ridley’s ABC anthology drama, American Crime, winning back-to-back Emmys for her work.
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
King earned her first Oscar for her stirring performance in Barry Jenkins’ 2018 film, If Beale Street Could Talk. Ironically, the role came along shortly after King had told her agent she wanted to take a break from playing “mom” characters.
With the mega-hit Watchmen (pictured), King proved her leading-lady chops, picking up a fourth Emmy for her star turn as police officer Angela “Sister Night” Abar. It was her second collaboration with showrunner Damon Lindelof, with whom she’d worked on The Leftovers.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.