How Regina King Brought the Historical Icons in 'One Night in Miami' to Life

The actor's feature directorial debut captures a conversation between Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, and Muhammad Ali.

one night in miami, regina king
Amazon Studios

For her first stab at directing a feature film, the Emmy- and Oscar-winning actress Regina King decided to wrestle with legends. One Night in Miami, which marks King's directorial debut, tells the fictionalized story of a long night of the soul between four icons of Black history—Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Muhammad Ali when he was still Cassius Clay (Eli Goree). The screenplay by Kemp Powers imagines the details of a real-life conversation between the civil rights leader, the singer, the football player, and the boxer right after Clay beat Sonny Liston in February 1964.

As King depicts it, all of these men are at a crossroads. Clay is planning to announce his conversion, while Malcolm X is prepping to leave the Nation of Islam. Brown is transitioning into his work as an actor, as Cooke is releasing his protest song "A Change Is Gonna Come." (The timeline of the events in Cooke's life are fudged a little in the film.) As the subjects chat and tease one another, they get into deep discussions about the responsibility Black celebrities have and what constitutes as activism. 

King elicits some of the best performances from her actors you'll see all year, allowing the words to carry the narrative, while still building to striking cinematic moments, like Cooke's a cappella performance of his song "Chain Gang." Over Zoom, she spoke about her personal connection to the material and finding the humanity in historical figures. 

one night in miami
Amazon Studios

Thrillist: You were actively looking for a script to make your directorial debut with. What was it about this one that made total sense? 
Regina King: My initial reaction was like, Wow, you know, I've never read anything like this before. I'm not saying it doesn't exist, but I've never seen these men portrayed this way, and usually when I'm watching a biopic—which this isn't—but usually, when you're watching something with icons that have made such an impact, you don't always walk away feeling like he or she reminds me of every Black person I know. Reading Kemp's script, the way he humanized these four men made me feel like I believe every Black man that I know and love can see himself in this piece. 

You are dealing with icons. I can only imagine the pressures that go into portraying them. Besides Kemp's script, what was your research process? 
The good thing that Kemp had done most of [the research]. It was kind of like that kid in college: Can I borrow your notes? So he was pointing all of us in the direction of books that we can read that weren't the obvious books that some of us may have already read, and just giving us carte blanche when it came to access to his research. It just really resonated with me that Kemp had written this love letter to Black men. I could see where the titles were gone. I just always constantly stayed in this space of, what are the things, especially with Cassius and Malcolm, that when we've seen them in interviews and when we've seen them portrayed? What is it that we don't see? These are the things that I wanted to be part of this film because, while it is a dramatization of a night that actually happened, it is an opportunity to see them as men and allow them to be men, allow them to be vulnerable, because that is the safe space they were in. 

What were some of those details that you wanted to incorporate? 
With Cassius, his youth. He was so young and so impressionable. We always see him as this mouth and this power and this voice. There was, like all of us, anyone that has achieved success, there was a moment where you were unsure or uneasy and and we've never even considered that Cassius Clay or Muhammad Ali could have been nervous. I wanted to make sure that we could see a bit of that. We did it in just little moments. There's a little moment after the prayer where Cassius is looking in the mirror and you see just a little bit of nerves. I wanted us to see that, but never at any point I wanted anyone to walk away and not still think he's not one of the strongest men you've ever seen or ever knew in your life. That the strongest man that you've ever known or seen in your life could still have nerves. That is a possibility, you know. 

leslie odom jr one night in miami
Amazon Studios

It's hard to overstate the relevance of this piece, but as someone who has been in Hollywood for a long time, what specifically resonated with you? The discussions between Sam Cooke and Malcolm X about assimilation are really at the core of the movie. Did those discussions happen off camera too? 
I think we all came to it with an understanding that we all—struggle, may not be the right word—but what is our voice supposed to be? Or how are we supposed to use it as artists? Where does the artistry meet the social responsibility and how do you effectively use your voice in that space? One of the things that we all discussed throughout is the understanding that there was not only one way to use your voice and this piece that Kemp wrote was a beautiful acknowledgement of that. I guess just as individuals, I have discovered that for me, I'm good at using my art as my voice. I'm not the greatest speaker. I'm not the greatest social media person. I'm not strong in those places. So it's really about if you can walk away from this as an artist, as a person who does have a platform, feeling like you can let go of the expectations that are put on us and just figure out your personal voice. How to use your voice is a personal thing. It's an individual thing. It's not a certain thing. 

How did you execute the "Chain Gang" sequence? Was Leslie singing live? 
I think the thing that is unique about the process that we chose, when it came to the music and the performance pieces was that Leslie was going to sing live. I was lucky to have a partner in Leslie who agreed to do that, because not all voices want to do that. And rightfully so, the concern of how is that going to record. We had an amazing music supervisor who really helped to assure that we are doing everything to make sure we preserve the beauty of your voice. Leslie is an amazing voice. We actually purchased microphones that were of the period, so these microphones were on the set recording as our production microphones were recording. Obviously, yes, in the mix we were able to go in and tweak things here and there to make sure it was seamless, and that's only with a talent group of people involved with the music process and the sound process. Our sound department in production led by Paul Ledford had microphones hidden everywhere to make sure we picked up the true voice. That was a sequence that, from the beginning, I saw it in my mind, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Our post sound team, Andy Hey and everyone, were so excited about that scene. We had countless conversations maybe two months before we got to that scene. It was a true team effort to achieve what we achieved. 

Why did you choose to end with that last shot of Malcolm's face? 
The original ending was not that, and after finishing the film and these performances being so strong and having just a wonderful editor in Tariq Anwar, the original ending just for me did not match the story that we told, the film that we ended up with. It just kind of landed for me that these conversations between Malcolm and Sam were so dynamic throughout and we were definitely talking about the brotherhood that existed with these four. The subject matter is so heavy in places in this film that I wanted to have a coda that felt as though Sam and Malcolm saw each other. So Tariq found that shot when I made the decision to redo the ending and kind of move some things around. That's the beauty of having an amazing editor. They find things that you don't ever see. He found it and he sent it in a little quick link and he said, "Tell me what you think." And I was like, [gasps] "That is the shot." 

How did you think about how you were going to film in the context of the hotel room? 
We took some artistic license and decided to make the room bigger so that, when we wanted to have some depth, we could have it and, when we wanted it to feel claustrophobic, we could let our camera handle that. It was definitely always a choice to keep the camera moving throughout this entire film, but we did not want it to be a distraction because sometimes things can move so much they can start to feel swimming. These actors—Kingsley, Eli, Aldis, and Leslie—are so powerful. They are doing most of the lifting. We were using our tools as the crew to keep those performances precious.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.