Venice: Regina King on Why Her Directorial Debut 'One Night in Miami' Is a "Story That Needed to Be Told"

One Night in Miami and inset of Regina King
Courtesy of TIFF; Inset: JEAN-BAPTISTE LACROIX/AFP via Getty Images

The 'Watchmen' star discusses how her 1960s civil rights drama could, in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests and the coronavirus pandemic, "be a reminder for some, and a discovery for others."

For more than 30 years, Regina King has been acting's equivalent of the go-to player.

Whatever role directors threw at her — Detective Lydia Adams on the TNT police drama Southland, the unflappable Sharon Rivers in Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk, or an honest-to-god superhero in Damon Lindelof's Watchmen for HBO — King has hit it out of the park.

Now with one Oscar (for If Beale Street Could Talk) and three Emmys on her shelf (and a possible fourth on the way for her performance in Watchmen), King has stepped behind the camera. One Night in Miami, her feature debut as a director, is an adaptation of Kemp Power's acclaimed 2013 play, which imagines what was said in a real-life meeting between Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay), Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown on a fateful night in 1964. 

Ahead of the film's world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on Monday, King spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about finding the "ordinary black men" behind these Civil Rights icons and how current events — from the Black Lives Matter movement and the coronavirus pandemic to President Donald Trump's reelection campaign — will make the film's themes "resonate even stronger."

How was the transition going from the most powerful creature in the universe at the end of Watchmen to directing your first feature with One Night in Miami?

I think I speak for a lot of actors that sometimes it is hard to shed a role, to let go of it. That's especially true with a project like Watchmen, which is so complex, that involves so many different genres, with a character that had so many aspects to her. She was a heroic character but was also at the center of a love story and on a journey of self-discovery to understanding where the pain she carried all of her life, understanding where it came from. It was very complex.

But I always find the best way to transition out of one role is to move into another. It's kind of therapeutic. For me going back and forth from directing to acting just feels like a really natural and necessary transition because I get to shed whatever I was working on quickly and start exercising different parts of the brain. 

Kemp Power's play is from 2013, and you made the movie before George Floyd was murdered, before marches and uprisings inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. and around the world. How do you think your film will be seen in the light of events of the past few months?

I think it will resonate even stronger – because of everything. Even the pandemic plays a part. I believe that if we weren't in a middle of a pandemic, if we weren't at a time where people were all focused on their TVs and doing more self-reflection, I don't know if as many hearts and minds would have been ready to respond to this. This isn't new. The disregard for black bodies has been a part of my life ever since I have been alive and black. I think there are those who wouldn't have been [able] to receive it in such an emotional way if the world wasn't on pause as it has been. It's like we're on a timeout. We don't have the other distractions. Like a child on punishment, you begin to think about what you're being punished for, about what you can do differently in the future.

What do you think the movie can add to the current discussion?

I think it will be a reminder for some, and a discovery for others. This conversation in the middle of right now, it has been going on forever, as far as a black American is concerned. The passion and the pain that you hear and you see now are coming from the same space that these four men are speaking from and living through 40 years ago. 

Even now, we talk about the disregard for the black body, I think we — and when I say we, I'm speaking about all Americans — I think we don't get an opportunity to see this conversation, the kind that happens in private between two, three, four black men. So I'm hoping it moves the needle. Because right now I'm finally having conversations with others, with people who haven't had the same experiences I've had. I'm having conversations across the line. Now we need to turn those conversations into actions. And I do believe inspiration comes from art. I do believe the words of Malcolm and Muhammad Ali are still live on today.

These are iconic figures in American history. How does the film change our perspective of them?

We look at them like gods almost. But they are, they were, men. What attracted me to the piece and what was a big part of the story I set out to tell was while I honor the fact that their achievements are larger than life, they are just men. They are human beings. They struggle with the same things that all black men are up against. I wanted to hear their voices speaking about just being a black man in the world.

A key debate in the film is between Sam Cooke and Malcolm X, who have very different visions of how best to advance the civil rights movement. Cooke argues for black economic independence within the American system, Malcolm X for the need for radical, revolutionary change. Where do you come down on that debate?

One thing so beautiful about this story is all of these ideas on how to achieve black power and respect can exist, can co-exist. That's what's so interesting, and I think necessary, about this conversation. Here you have these four iconic men. I could have done a biography on each one of them and it would have been a seven-hour film. But to take a slice of life – where all of them and all of their ideas and thought processes exist together — lets us see what they have in common. They are men, and they are black. They come from all different places and have done very different things but they all have had experiences they share simply by being black men in America.

Their different experiences have shaped their different voices, but when you put them together, when they intersect, you realize it's not necessarily that one is more right than another. All of these ideals are necessary to achieve equity in America – something, 40 years after that meeting, that we still don't have.

How important do you think on-screen representation is? Your film has four heroic black men from history, but in your own work as an actress you've created powerful role-models, most recently, with Watchmen, where you portrayed an all-powerful black female superhero.

Well, personally, I think the black woman is the ultimate superhero. I mean look at the history, especially in our country. Look at the history of Africans ripped from our countries and brought here. Being ripped away from your family and put with other Africans who speak a whole other language and somehow finding a way to communicate. The history of being raped and birthing babies that are a product of rape and taking care of the families that were responsible for that hurt to your body and your mind. And then of being able to persevere and get on the other side of that and to somehow find yourself. If you really take the time to imagine all that, which is unimaginable, to imagine just what a black woman has had to endure just to stand here, and to know what all black women before me have had to endure so I can stand here in this moment and be confident and hold my head high, that's heroism. So, yes, Watchmen is fictional. But is it? Is it really?

Amazon has picked up your film but hasn't given it a U.S. release date yet. Is it important for you that One Night in Miami gets seen before the election, online or in cinemas?

We really put this film on an accelerated post-production schedule because we all agreed that it was a story that needed to be told. In the light of recent events, it's really made it urgent. I started to do the editing before the uprising, and once it happened, there were things in the film, words I have been with for so long, for over a year, that I've read and heard so many times, that were hitting me differently. I think it would be a powerful thing if it could come out before the election. But I also think so many things are going on right now, it could get lost. I'm one of those people who trusts in the universe, and the universe will lead this film to be released at the proper time, whether before or after the election.