To say Regina King is “having a moment” feels a little inappropriate, considering that she is 35 years into her career. But it also feels like an understatement. In the past five years she has won an Oscar, four Emmys and numerous other awards for her performances in a string of acclaimed titles, including Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk, the prescient comic-book miniseries Watchmen and the Netflix race-crime drama Seven Seconds. As well as marching her down several miles of red carpet, the flurry of attention has catapulted her into a new echelon of star power.
Now she is also making waves as a director. Her debut feature, One Night in Miami, was the first film directed by an African American woman ever to screen at the Venice film festival. The resultant acclaim, combined with the resonance of the civil rights-era story, puts it in contention for the upcoming awards season; she is considered a shoo-in for the best director shortlists. Everything King touches seems to be turning to gold right now. What’s her secret?
“Oh, man, I don’t know that it’s a secret,” she says on the phone from Los Angeles. “I think two things that are consistent is that I enjoy the art form. I enjoy storytelling. I was lucky to have a talent for something that I guess … what is that thing? If you can make your hobby your career you should never get bored with it. I love what I do. I love the discoveries that come along with it. So that, coupled with hard work, creates, I guess, what they call luck – you know, preparation and opportunity.”
She is being modest. Even in minor roles, King has a way of bringing naturalism, texture and energy to her performances. Given a meatier character, she can work wonders: witness the wordless scene in If Beale Street Could Talk where her character, a desperate mother, conveys a spectrum of emotions simply by trying on a wig. But the modesty feels genuine. Despite having been acting on screen since she was 14, and having directed numerous times for television, King admits to feeling some trepidation in making her first feature. “I’m always nervous, whatever the piece that I’m doing. And I’ll be super nervous if I’m not nervous.”
Even when acting? “In the beginning, definitely, yes. Kind of like the first day of school. You know, even if you have all your school supplies, and ironed your clothes the day before, you still have butterflies. So, yes, I still get that feeling.”
The nerves are understandable with a story such as One Night in Miami, which deals with a Mount Rushmore of African American legends: Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown. Adapted by Kemp Powers from his own stage play, the film is inspired by a real-life encounter between these four men in 1964, when they gathered in Miami to watch Ali (then still Cassius Clay) defeat Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title.
In their own ways, all four men are upending America’s racial hierarchies, and all four are in moments of transition: Clay is about to announce his change of name and allegiance to the Nation of Islam, not yet aware that Malcolm X is considering separating from the organisation. Brown is set to retire from American football to launch his movie career, while Cooke is moving from soul celebrity into producing. They think they’re going back to Malcolm’s room for a “victory party”, but all he has to offer are a few tubs of ice cream and an evening of “reflection” on how these men should be applying what power they have at this crucial juncture in the civil rights struggle.
Things steadily turn from banter and bonhomie towards confrontation, particularly between Malcolm X (an outstanding Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Cooke (Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr). “No more room for anyone to be standing on the fence any more,” Malcom X pleads to Cooke. “Our people are literally dying in the streets every day.” He contrasts Cooke’s innocuous love songs with Bob Dylan’s zeitgeist anthem Blowin’ in the Wind, asking how it is that “a white boy from Minnesota speaks more to the struggles of our movement than anything you’ve written in your life”. Cooke counters that he “not anyone’s weapon”, and that his economic stake in his industry is a more lasting, meaningful form of power.
One Night in Miami gets beyond the facades of these cultural icons and portrays them as conflicted, fallible human beings. “Being a black woman who has grown up with the majority of the men in her life being black men, I have a connection,” King says. “I feel like we very rarely get the opportunity to see on screen black men portrayed the way I see them, and love them, and with the complexity and the vulnerability and all of those things that make them who they are.”
There was something utterly familiar to King about these characters from men in her own life, she says – her family, her friends, her 24-year-old son. Beneath the historic import and eloquent dialogue, their situation was also familiar: “These are conversations that have been going on for ever. No matter what your economic background, no matter how big your platform is, there are certain things that are very common for a black man and and how he is regarded: the mental aerobics, the emotional aerobics that one goes through being black in America, but still finding the courage to smile and love and laugh, with the sordid past and the current space that we’re in.”
In the latter regard, One Night in Miami’s timing is uncanny. Filming began in January 2020. When coronavirus shut the industry down in March, they had just a couple more scenes to do. Then came the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and the Black Lives Matter uprising. “That kind of lit a fire under it,” King says. “We always felt like this film would be timely, but we couldn’t have predicted the powder-keg moment that was going to be coming. And so I was watching and just like: ‘Oh, my God, we have got to finish this film and it needs to come out now.’”
One Night in Miami’s debates about the responsibilities of prominent black artists could hardly fail to resonate with King on a personal level, given her recent ascent of the power ladder. If she was ever “on the fence”, she got off it a long time ago. In 2010, five years before #OscarsSoWhite, King wrote an opinion piece for the Huffington Post titled The Emmys: White As Ever, in which she pointed out that the previous night’s Emmy awards had miscaptioned another black actor, Rutina Wesley, as her, and failed to honour Alaina Reed Hall (a fixture of Sesame Street and King’s co-star in the sitcom 227 for five years) in its memoriam segment. King also observed that out of roughly 1,000 nominations in the top Emmy categories at that point, only 53 non-white actors had ever been nominated.
“I remember saying, I’ll probably never get nominated for an Emmy after this!” She laughs. “I’d gone back and forth on: ‘Should I do it?’ It wasn’t something that they had asked me to do. But I felt like, you know, my career had been going well. Like, I’ll be OK if it doesn’t happen. This is more important: me using my voice to express a reality that was, I guess, hiding in plain sight. Cut to five years or so later, I was winning my first Emmy.”
It took her a long time to build up the courage to rock the boat, she says. “When I first started acting, I felt I wasn’t strong enough in my voice yet. I think that that’s a common thing for a lot of people. I don’t think that that’s specific to being black and being a woman, but I do feel like being black and being a woman, it does make it harder to break through those moments, you know? You have more stacked against you.”
In fact, she has never really been out of work or favour. Born and raised in Los Angeles, the daughter of a teacher and an electrical engineer (her parents divorced when she was eight), King seems to have moved smoothly from teenage sitcom stardom into the flowering black cinema scene of the 1990s, making her movie debut in John Singleton’s seminal Boyz n the Hood, then continuing with mainstream hits such as Jerry Maguire, Enemy of the State, Ray, Miss Congeniality 2 and Legally Blonde 2, and TV shows 24 and Southland. She has had more than her share of second-fiddle “wife” roles, but as the industry has woken up to its deficiencies in recent years, opportunities for more substantial and mould-breaking work have come her way, not to mention opportunities to direct, including episodes of Insecure, This Is Us and Scandal.
King cites Singleton as an early mentor. He cast her in a more substantial role in Poetic Justice, a gentle, romantic road trip starring Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur (not to mention Q-Tip, Tone Loc and Maya Angelou – the movie is a who’s who of 90s black culture).
King plays Jackson’s forthright, hard-drinking best friend Iesha. “I was just asking him certain questions about the character, just as an actor, just wanting to build backstory,” she recalls. “I think the type of questions I was asking him made him enthusiastic. Up until that moment, I only knew what a director did when it came to working with the actor, but once I’d gotten the part, John just shared with me his whole preparation process. I wasn’t realising that I was taking an interest until someone took an interest in me.”
So now King has the courage and the power, and, she points out, the wisdom, to make a difference. In terms of the Malcolm X/Sam Cooke debate in One Night in Miami – direct, confrontational activism versus longer-term change from within – she is really doing both. She is evidently choosing roles and stories with a worthwhile agenda, as an actor, director and producer (as well as One Night in Miami, she produced and directed TV pilot The Finest, on five African American sisters in the New York police force).
She has also advocated for structural change in the industry. Accepting her Golden Globe for Beale Street in 2019, she vowed that 50% of her team would be women on her future projects, and challenged others to do the same. Receiving her Emmy for Watchmen last year wearing a T-shirt honouring Breonna Taylor, she urged people to vote in the presidential elections and paid tribute to the former US supreme court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “My walk in my responsibility does not have to look like the next black artist,” she says.
It is not an either/or situation, which is really the message of Malcolm X and Cooke’s clash in One Night in Miami. “In the end, you realise that they’re not duelling, they actually work in tandem,” she says. “The reality is, both of those perspectives need to exist to effect real, transformative change.”
• One Night in Miami is released in the UK on Amazon Prime on 15 January