I spoke to Regina King the day before her 50th birthday — the same day her film would make its virtual premiere. King’s first name means king too — a fun little fact I learnt while researching her. The piece originally appeared in Deadline’s Awardsline magazine.
Regina King has built her award-winning acting career on a rock-solid foundation of memorable lead roles, supporting characters and turns in all-star ensemble casts, in roles on TV and film, from American Crime to Seven Seconds, Watchmen and If Beale Street Could Talk. 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 creating just as sturdy a bedrock for her film directing career too.
By Nadia Neophytou
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 being introduced to the others, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Malcolm X. How did these scenes help you to begin telling this story?
Regina King: The first draft that I read, that’s how Kemp [Powers] introduced, if you will, 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 the audience member, that you 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 — there is a great energy within it and it becomes more than just a play on screen, 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 steady cam.
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 a 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 [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: You say you take something from everything that you do — what about when you were 14 and worked on 227 alongside access Marla Gibbs and director Garren Keith?
King: Oh my gosh, the word that I have to use for Garren Keith is ‘great.’ He is just absolutely an amazing human being.What I learned about Garren, I was able to learn from watching other directors come on to our show and just the difference in how they ran the ship. Garren has such an amazing ability to have this command 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 Garren was directing. I wanted Garren 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, and 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 Garren 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. And that 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: It’s clear to see, along the journey of your career that family has been so important — you have a production company, Royal Ties, with your sister, but also in terms of which productions you chose to work on while your son was growing up. Would you say that factored into the decision to make this particular film as well, which you’ve called “a love letter to Black men?”
King: Actually, I never thought about it that way, but it’s probably so. There is a familial quality to the relationship that Kemp had written between these four men, and I guess my love for Black men and my understanding that we don’t often get to see our men in cinema the way we see them in real life — this was a opportunity to be able to be a part of presenting that. So I never looked at it that way, but yeah, I would have to say that definitely was one of the factors that helped, one of the many factors that made this appealing.
Deadline: You advocate for gender parity and racial equality in Hollywood, but what have you learned about the practicalities of and challenges within that that could help the industry going forward?
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 she and, 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.