Director Regina King and writer Kemp Powers on making ‘One Night in Miami’

Regina King would make Oscar history as the second woman and first Black to win the Academy Award for Best Director the historical drama “One Night in Miami.” This three-time Emmy winner (most recently for HBO’s “Watchmen”) and a supporting actress Oscar-winner for 2018’s “If Beale Street Could Talk,” makes her feature film directorial debut with this lauded drama. Its set on Feb. 25, 1964, the night that 22-year-old Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) won the heavyweight championship by beating Sonny Liston at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

After the win, he arrives at the Hampton Inn, a hotel that specializes in hosting black celebrities, to meet with his friends Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), football giant and budding actor Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and popular singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.). Each man is at the crossroads of their lives: Malcolm X is looking to leave the Nation of Islam, while Clay is embracing the religion and will soon be known as Muhammad Ali. Brown is trying to move into acting and Cooke is torn between performing different ways for a black audience and a white audience.

Owen Gleiberman observed in Variety that “where the film comes together, and holds you as a structured piece of drama, is in the theme that surges throughout it but is given a name only at the end: ‘Black power.’ In 1964, that phrase is just coming into its own, and ‘One Night in Miami” is set at that paradigm shift of a moment when Black power was a consciousness that emerged, in part, from how figures like these four were rising in the culture.”

The Amazon Studios release was adapted by Kemp Powers from his 2013 play of the same name. Powers also co-wrote and co-directed the critically acclaimed Disney/Pixar animated fantasy/comedy “Soul.” “One Night in Miami” premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September to rave reviews; opened theatrical on Christmas Day and will premiere on Amazon Prime on Jan. 15. Recently, Film Independent sponsored a Zoom conversation between King and Powers moderated by the Curvy Critic, Carla Renata. Here are excerpts from their lively conversation.

2021 Oscar Predictions: Best Director

Powers noted that having his play made into a film has been a dream for him. “I was just talking to someone earlier today about on the opening night of the play in a 99-seat theater in Los Angeles saying to myself out loud- ‘I could die happy.’ I was able to bring this story to an audience and that audience was 99 people in a theater on Pico next to Roscoe’s. I’d never in a million years thought that the story would connect so well and keep moving on. And that I’d be even allowed to be a part of the process this long. It’s rare to find collaborators who are as open and thoughtful and giving as Regina is. “

Powers described King as a “unique” person “in that she’s so far more than all the wonderful things that you hear about. So, this collaboration for me was also a mentorship in terms of understanding things about filmmaking and cinema and how this business works.”

King wasn’t looking for a particular type of first film. “I was in conversations with my agent about the stories I wanted to tell as a director in film,” she said. “And one of the things I wanted to do was tell a love story within a historical backdrop like ‘Titanic,’ but with the couple being black. And he heard me say that. When ‘One Night in Miami’ came along, while it wasn’t a romantic love story, it is in fact a love story. Love is part of the story, so it was the base. It did have an historical backdrop, Cassius Clay becoming the heavyweight champion of the world.”

2021 Oscar Predictions: Best Adapted Screenplay

But more than anything, she added, was “One Night in Miami” was an actor’s piece. “And that might be a strength of mine, depending on who you ask.” She knew the dialogue was the actual star of the piece. “The right actors would understand that and just embody these men opposed to doing a characterization of these men,” noted King.

King acknowledged that Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X have been portrayed “very well and we have seen them portrayed poorly. This was going to be a moment of seeing them again but in a very specific way, in a way in my opinion, we had never seen or explored. Telling stories that involved these two men and then Jim Brown and Sam Cooke were icons as well. Here we have them all together. When I go back and look at it right now, I think about the fact that Kemp decided to write this.“ And in Powers’ screenplay, she added, “it was their vulnerability that made them powerful. Vulnerability is strength. I am interested in this very human moment that takes place between the four of them.”

Powers pointed out that that the evening on Feb. 25th really happened. “The dialogue and situation are fictional, but Cassius was at the Hampton House in Malcolm’s room with Sam and Jim eating vanilla ice cream and the next morning is when he says I’m in the Nation of Islam, call me Cassius X.” Initially, he thought of writing a book about that night and their friendship “between these four unapologetically black men, who were so unapologetic during such a dangerous time.,” said Powers. “When I found out about this one night, I was still a journalist. This was like 10 or 11 years ago.”

2021 Oscar Predictions: Best Supporting Actor

He found that it was more than just a story of friendship. “It was like really an incredible look at what would become to me an inspiration for a nascent black power movement. So, I had years of research. Then when I decided to write it as a work of fiction, I saw it as a responsibility to make sure that I characterize each of these guys in a realistic way. I wanted to focus on their humanity. I wanted to focus on their vulnerability.” Though he may sound arrogant, Powers said, “I wanted to challenge myself to write characterizations of each of these four men that would be so on point that even people who knew them would believe that they would say and do all things that they said and did in the film.”

Powers noted he thought “One Night in Miami” would “unfortunately” resonate today “because we’ve been having this discussion for a long time before this night. What is the best way forward for black people in this country that in many ways refuses to acknowledge and accept our humanity? And for black creatives, it’s something that you think about all the time, which is what, if any, social responsibilities do I have as a black artist? “You often hear things like I just want to be seen as a director, an actor or a writer not as a black director, writer, actor. That’s something I used to say a lot in my 20s. Nowadays, I want to be seen as a black writer, because the reality is, I think that the black experience contains all the multitudes of experience.  I think the black experience is the human experience and it’s not something that need to be seen as a negative.”

The difference between 2013 and now is that the discussion people are having is more public. “When the play came out, it was very challenging to get people to produce the play. What I would often hear was that there was a concern that the unapologetic blackness of the play would alienate white theater goers. I guess unapologetic blackness is in right now or should I say White people are into it.”

PREDICT the 2021 Oscar nominations through March 15

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