Regina King has said the response to her feature directorial debut can either “open doors or close doors for more Black female directors,” throwing into sharp relief the double standards in place for creators of color.
“Unfortunately, across the world, that’s how things seem to work. One woman gets a shot and if she does not succeed, it shuts thing down for years until someone else gets a shot,” said King, speaking from the U.S. at a “One Night in Miami” press conference via Zoom at the Venice Film Festival on Monday.
“I am so grateful for our film to be a part of the festival but I really, really want it to perform well. There’s so much talent out there — so many talented directors — so if ‘One Night in Miami’ gets it done here, you’ll get to see a lot more of us.”
“One Night in Miami,” which world premieres on Monday, is based on former journalist Kemp Powers’ fictional account of a real meeting in 1964 between U.S. minister and political figure Malcolm X; 22-year-old Muhammad Ali when he was still Cassius Clay; “A Change is Gonna Come” singer Sam Cooke; and NFL player Jim Brown. Powers, who was part of the Zoom-based press conference in Venice, said his discovery of the meeting, in Mike Marqusee’s book “Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties,” was like finding “the Black Avengers.”
The film, which began shooting in November 2019, was snapped up by Amazon in late July, with the streamer taking world rights, much to the chagrin of Venice buyers. King said she had intended for the film to come out earlier this year, but the pandemic and subsequent Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd added a new level of urgency to the film’s release.
“We thought we’d push it back because we didn’t know what the climate of going to theaters would be like,” said King. “And then a couple of months after the pandemic hit, [George Floyd died in police custody], and for all the producers and everyone involved, we were like, ‘This needs to come out now.’ I feel like fate always had it planned out this way, but 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 a conversation about transformative change.”
Noting that conversations faced by Black Americans during the film’s time period are still “the conversations happening now,” the “Watchmen” star described Powers’ script as a “love letter to the Black man’s experience.”
“Before they are Malcolm X and Cassius Clay, they are men before any of the other things, and the labels that are put on them… No matter how much money they have or don’t have, one thing is the same: no matter where you go, you’ll be judged by the color of your skin and that’s never going to change.”
Asked whether the film’s release later this year may inform voter turnout in the U.S. presidential election, Leslie Odom Jr., who rose to acclaim after starring in the original “Hamilton” cast on Broadway and plays Sam Cooke in the film, drew parallels with the hit musical and its own political influence in 2016.
“This, in so many ways, reminds me of that experience…But that show, as artists, we were not really thinking of how it would affect the political conversation. As an artist, I think, Black, white, anything else, your first goal is to be a part of something excellent…something you can be proud of in the company of other artists. The rest takes care of itself.”
British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir, who portrays Malcolm X and will play Barack Obama in Showtime’s forthcoming “The Comey Rule,” highlighted the challenges finding documentation of him when he wasn’t working. “We always see these men at work. In all our recordings and footage, they’re always in the limelight and responding to something. This is an opportunity to play them in a room.”
Eli Goree, who played Cassius Clay, commended King’s directing as “instrumental” in reminding the actors to find the humanity in the icons they were playing. “It’s easy to get caught up in Cassius…You have in your mind this person you saw your whole life and how they were when you saw them.”
One of the film’s central debates is the question of political freedom versus economic freedom. In Powers’ fictionalized account of the meeting, Malcom X assails Cooke on the apolitical nature of his songs, questioning why he “panders” to white audiences. The singer defends himself by saying he owns the masters to his music, and rather than go for a “piece of the pie, [he wants] the whole recipe” in regards to economic independence.
Powers said these are questions he is still contemplating in his own life, noting “there are times when you have to work within the system and there are times when things just have to go.”
“Sam Cooke and Malcom X both make cogent points. People come away and say, ‘Well, yeah, Sam had it right,’ and others say Malcolm was right. That’s actually a conflict that goes on inside of me every day as an artist. I sincerely believe, through hundreds of conversations with other Black artists, [that] it’s a conflict that goes on inside all of us, all the time. You talk to people and they say, ‘I just want to be seen as an actor, not a Black actor.’ We’re never going to get away from that.”
Aldis Hodge, who plays Jim Brown, added, “Both politics and economics have been used against us. We’re trying to get to a place where we can engage that power ourselves and what we do see is those brilliant conversations happening.”