TIFF 2020: The important message in 'One Night in Miami,' Regina King's feature directorial debut

By Zach Harper

TIFF 2020: The important message in 'One Night in Miami,' Regina King's feature directorial debut

When the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, Regina King wanted to push back the release of One Night in Miami, her feature directorial debut. The film was short by three scenes, and many other projects in which she and the stars were involved had been cancelled due to restrictions at the time. But it went into editing, even though no one really knew what was happening with Hollywood or how the next few months would pan out.

But then Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were killed, and Regina says she realized the film needed to be released as quickly as possible. So she called Hamilton star Leslie Odom, Jr. and Halifax-born Eli Goree, who portray Sam Cooke and Muhammad Ali (who was still going by Cassius Clay in 1964, when the film is set) to see if they wanted to complete the missing scenes.

"You don't know what people's temperature is going to be with a pandemic going on," she said in a Sept. 11 press conference about the film, which is screening at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. "How are they going to feel about doing this now?"

In addition to all the press Regina is doing for One Night in Miami this fall, she's also nominated for an Emmy Award for Lead Actress in a Limited Series of Movie for her work on Watchmen. Photo: © David Crotty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Both stars overwhelmingly said yes to filming, and the last scenes were completed with 60 crew members on set.

"The things that are being discussed in the film are just as relevant now as they were 60 years ago," Regina said, before later adding, "People believed that this needed to be out now."

One Night in Miami is based on Kemp Powers's play of the same name. It is a fictionalized account of a meeting between Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam, NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Cassius after the boxer beat Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world.

The film sees the four men adjusting to their celebrity and power – within the context of the reality of the systemic racism they face as Black men. They confront each other with difficult questions, such as how they should use their influence and how they should fight the bigotry and prejudice they face. In the movie, Cassius has already achieved greatness at the very young age of 22, and stands on the cusp of becoming Muhammad Ali and becoming something even larger: a legend. That's the feeling for all four men in the film, who vow to use their own talents in the struggle for Civil Rights.

"I'd never seen conversations like this happen before on the screen – small screen or big screen," Regina said. "I felt like, while it was through the voices of these legendary men, I was listening to conversation from just Black men speaking about the Black man's experience. I wanted in on that."

In addition to One Night in Miami, Kent Powers is also known for his work on Star Trek: Discovery. Photo: © Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney

Kemp, who also served as screenwriter for the film, also said he wanted to communicate a side of the men that most people haven't seen or don't know.

"Showing us as indestructible is one thing, but I wanted to show men that we see as iconic and indestructible in moments of vulnerability and do it in a way that vulnerability isn't a bad thing at all," Kemp said.

Aldis agreed, and said there are parallels with the Black Lives Matter movement today and the protests that are still being held over the deaths of George, Breonna, Ahmaud, Tony McDade and the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisc. just a few weeks ago.

The cast of One Night in Miami, L-R: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Leslie Odom, Jr., Aldis Hodge and Eli Goree. Photos: © Mike Marsland/WireImage / Robin L Marshall/Getty Images for BET / Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage and Phillip Chin/WireImage

"These four men [in the film], most people would probably look at them and say, you know, 'You're a movie star, you're a singer, you're this, you're that, you're living the life,' da da da, but they are still not removed from the effects of what's going on to the culture, to their country, they are still Black in this world, they are still Black in America," Aldis said.

"[This project] speaks to what it is we are going through in a way that's so beautifully articulated to where we can see it and understand it and we also can have clarity as far as gaining a direction on how to keep moving forward with that conversation within our community and how we talk to other people about it," he continued. "It's a problem that still needs to get fixed."

In her Oscars acceptance speech, Regina paid tribute to author James Baldwin, who wrote the novel If Beale Street Could Talk, on which the film was based. Photo: © Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Regina, the director of a film featuring four trailblazers, is also one herself. She became the first Black woman to ever have a film she directed screen at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year when One Night in Miami had its world premiere.

Since the movie is highly touted for awards season, Regina could become the first Black woman to receive a Best Director Oscar nomination – or win, if she takes that prize. It would be her second Oscar, having picked up the Best Supporting Actress award in 2019 for her work in If Beale Street Could Talk.

"The fact that in 2020, [my film screening at Venice] is a first in a festival that's been happening for 80 years, and I can think of so many films directed by Black women filmmakers that I just assumed were at Venice... and I didn't even realize that they weren't," she began.

"I understand the responsibility. There's disappointment that comes along with it because of what I just said, but I do recognize that there's a lot of pressure that goes on firsts for anyone, and that the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and so on, so often is predicated on how the first performed."

One Night in Miami is screening now at the Toronto International Film Festival. Amazon has acquired the rights to it, so expect to see it on the streaming platform soon.