Regina King Discusses the Anxiety of Making History With 'One Night in Miami' (Exclusive)

ET's sitdown with the director and her screenwriter, Kemp Powers.

One Night in Miami is both a time capsule, of sorts -- a period piece about the time Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Muhammad Ali converged upon a hotel in Florida -- and a film that could not be more timely, that speaks directly to what's going on nearly 50 years removed from that one night.

In the film's 1964, the cultural titans and friends -- Malcolm (Kingsley Ben-Adir), football great Brown (Aldis Hodge), soul singer Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and the boxer then known as Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) -- have gathered to celebrate the latter's championship win, though conversation quickly turns to race and responsibility, the men tussling over the best way to move forward and debating who is using their platform to what end.

They are the same conversations heard online and at protests and hopefully in homes today. The film, however, is also a portrait of four Black men engaging in extreme vulnerability with one another. That they are all icons is a layer, but it almost doesn't matter in seeing their relationships rupture and repair, of seeing the men come into conflict or revel in the beauty they see in each other.

One Night in Miami hails from first-time feature director Regina King, an actress known for her nuanced, human performances onscreen, so it should come as no surprise that's her approach behind the camera, too. King's work has cemented her as an awards season contender, as well as making history: In September, she became the first Black female filmmaker to screen at the Venice International Film Festival.

King directs from a script by Kemp Powers, whom she affectionately refers to as "Kempipedia" due to his unending knowledge about, well, everything. The former journalist dramatized the real-life meet-up first as a 2013 stage play, before adapting his own screenplay. (One Night in Miami follows Powers' work writing and co-directing Pixar's history-making Soul.)

King and Powers came together on Zoom to discuss with ET their collaborative process, capturing the humanity of these Black legends onscreen and the anxiety and heartbreak that comes with making history.

ET: There's always much ado about a feature directorial debut and that you only get to make it once. Was that something that weighed on you at all? And how did you then know this script was the film to make that debut on?

Regina King: You know, everyone has to have their first -- whatever your industry is, everyone has a first -- so I don't think I was really so much thinking about, "Oh, gosh. It's my first. It needs to be right," as much as I was just approaching it the way I do things as an actor, wanting to tell a story that moves me as an audience member. I knew that there were stories that I would love to be able to direct one day, and one of those things was a love story with a historical piece as part of it. And it just so happens that as I was expressing that to my agents, Kemp's beautiful script comes my way. It starts off, like I say, as an audience of one, and as I'm that one audience member receiving this gift, I had no doubt that this was what I wanted to be a part of. I knew that I needed to get this job.

What were those early conversations you two had as you set out to make this? What were the things you were very much on the same page about, and were there things that led to some healthy debate between you two?

Kemp Powers: I wouldn't even call it debate. What was so great in the beginning for me was not only did Regina connect to the script, she had also read the stage play before we had our first conversation. So, she noted the differences immediately, and if anything, she was probably the first person who said, "I want to get more of the stage play into this movie." Because the screenplay is actually quite different and there are lots of things that I cut out. Our first conversation was just that. It was just a really nice conversation with someone who you're vibing off of the same things. That's what you hope for all the time [but] rarely ever happens when it comes to these new projects. [Laughs] That alone really excited me. It was a really nice conversation about that world and these men and seeing that she got what I was trying to do was humbling and awesome for me.

King: Yeah, to piggyback on what Kemp said, there was never a moment where we were in disagreement about the story that we wanted to tell. I knew immediately upon reading that while it was through the voices of these iconic men, Kemp was writing a story about himself, about all of the men -- Black men, specifically -- in our lives that we know are so much more layered than what we get to see in film most times.

Powers: And I've told you before that I used to be a journalist in my former life, but it really amused me how Regina could just follow up on things with her network so quickly, like her ladies network. I love the day that she called and was like, "So, I had a conversation with Ambassador Shabazz" -- Malcolm's oldest daughter -- "and she told me this story about how her dad used to leave these messages hidden in books." And I'm like, "Oh, shit! We got to get that in the movie!" She's like, "Yeah, exactly." She was able to reach out to the women in these iconic men's worlds and draw information that I hadn't been able to draw from years and years of research. Just in conversations with them as daughters and as family members. I don't know, there was something wonderfully symbiotic about that, because it's this story about Black men, but my blind spot is how these men appear in the eyes of Black women. So, I feel really lucky that it was so additive -- these conversations -- never combative. Always additive.

King: Absolutely.

As if I didn't already think there was nothing Regina King couldn't do.

King: I wish that were true! [Laughs] But, then again, no, I don't, because then that means that there's nothing I could learn. And that would be no fun.

King on set with Kingsley Ben-Adir, who stars as Malcolm X. (Amazon Studios)

This film is so much about the humanity of these men, but they are also icons. They're almost like modern deities. I imagine bringing them to life in any medium comes with some intimidation. Kemp, you're literally putting words into the mouths of greats and Regina, you are then responsible for capturing their essence onscreen. How were you able to free yourself from that pressure to make this film?

King: The beautiful thing about this whole process is that Kemp had done all of the work. [Laughs] I know that's probably a lot for Kemp to hear, but he did. So, he was our North Star and the place that I would check in when I wasn't sure or when I felt like I needed just a little more clarity or if I felt like something should shift one way, was I right in that assessment? We had such a great, safe space of communicating. And I think the dialogue was the star. While this was an imagining of what could have happened on a real night, it just felt very true. I would never believe that Kemp wasn't a fly on the wall there. And because of that, the thing that was most important after having this beautiful piece of work -- these words -- was finding those actors to embody these legends and honor these legends in the way that Kemp had already started. I think we all believed that that heavy lifting was going to land on those actors, so it was finding those actors.

Powers: The burden of it and the struggle, I worked out when I was doing the play version of this story. The word you used -- deification -- the wonderful thing is that this wasn't a movie about the deification of any of these men. It was about the humanization of these men. I was having a conversation with someone, and it might sound not interconnected but bear with me. It was about that study that they did that showed that when Black people in America go to the hospital, we don't get anesthetics as much as white people, because there's a perception that we have a higher tolerance for pain. And as an end result of that, we suffer when we go to the hospital and Black women have higher mortality rates or when they report problems, they're not taken as seriously. It might not seem interconnected, but the problem with deification is that these men are turned into superheroes. There's just a minor difference between superhuman and inhuman.

And we always say that we have to be so superhuman to be Black and American, we can sometimes take that to the point where people forget about our humanity and forget that we have emotions and that we feel pain. When I was working on the play, I remember some of the earliest actors who, as a playwright, they come to you with questions and they would say, like, "Kemp, no one would ever believe that Muhammad Ali would have a moment of doubt, that he would ever think that he wasn't going to win every fight." And I would say to the actor, "Do you seriously believe that? What you're describing is not a human being. You're describing a robot. You mean to tell me, you, a 22-year-old man on this stage, actually buy that pontification to the point that you really believe that he never had a doubt?" I'm like, "Wow, I think we might've overdone it to a certain extent." Showing even a little bit of vulnerability -- and that's all we show is a little bit of it -- showing Malcolm talking to his daughter, showing that all this racism is affecting Jim in the smallest amount and showing Muhammad Ali have just a little bit of doubt is that extraordinary, and it shouldn't be.

Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown, Eli Goree as Cassius Clay and Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke. (Amazon Studios)

The film is being received so well -- which is what you want -- and it's also making history, which on the surface, is a celebratory thing, but it feels so complicated. If it happens, it's great for you and for everyone who comes after you. At the same time, it's infuriating that certain things haven't happened in the year 2021. And it's not right that it's only now happening. Regina, you were the first Black female filmmaker to screen at Venice, and now there's conversation about how you could be the first nominated for Best Director at the Oscars. How do you digest all of that?

King: Well, it's interesting, because when you talk about the Venice part of it all, I did not know that until an article posted. In my mind, I had assumed that, you know, Dee Rees, both of her films had been there, Ava's film had been there, Julie Dash's film had been there. It never occurred to me that those films had never been there. I was truly under the assumption that as a Black female filmmaker, that I'm following the trajectory that my filmmaking sisters had paved the way for. And it does not make my feeling that they've paved the way for me any less. I still do believe that. I still believe Debbie Allen is someone that really made us see the possibility of not only being a director, but successfully being a director. So, reading it in a headline for the first time was a little heartbreaking initially and then probably a little wave of anxiety came with that, because we all as Black people in any of our careers understand, we don't have the opportunity to fail up. If we don't succeed at this one moment, in this one shot, the likelihood of continuing beyond that -- and I'm not saying that it hasn't, but it has happened far less times than it has you shutting the door for all of those people behind you.

And that can bring on a certain level of anxiety. Like, even in Kemp's situation, he's in a really unique situation with Soul and One Night in Miami being firsts. His first adapted screenplay with One Night in Miami and then Soul being the first animated film out of Pixar that was helmed by a-- I'm going to be really delicate here, because I want to make sure that people understand Soul happened to tell a story about souls with a Black man at the lead, but it is a story about souls and about what you do with your soul. And race really has nothing to do with it, but it is starring a Black animated character and family. That is fantastic, but the fact that it's just only happening in 2020, how about that? The amount of pressure that's on Kemp's shoulders that if it doesn't succeed, if it's not received well, it could be 2040 before an animated story that has a Black character at the lead without him being Black being the lead line in the story. So, I think that almost every Black person that has experienced some success can understand the feeling of anxiety that rolls over me when these type of conversations come up.

As I'm listening to you, I'm realizing that Kemp, you are living the answer to the debate that Sam and Malcolm have in the film about what stories Black creatives can tell and which they should tell. You wrote One Night in Miami, which is a film of and for the movement that is directly about race, and then you have this other movie that is making history with a Black lead, but he's Black and that's that. You can do both.

Powers: Absolutely. I jokingly say about Sam and Malcolm, you're not supposed to think one is right. The answer "who is right?" is situational. There are times when we have to be like Malcolm and times we have to be like Sam. I'm just lucky in that this year I got to be like Malcolm with One Night in Miami, and I got to be like Sam and make Soul. You can see how you can move the needle forward both within the system and completely independently doing your own thing. But at the center of both of them is just humanity. These simple things -- friendship, brotherhood, fraternal love -- the fact that this is a new thing in 2020 is sad, but I'm hoping that with this film, we were able to move the needle even a little bit. That would be a really big deal.

One Night in Miami premieres on Amazon Prime Video on Jan. 15.