Regina King’s feature directorial debut may chronicle one epic night, but she has many prominent days and nights to follow as the buzz mushrooms into a cloud of pressure, anticipation and attention.
Recently premiering at the 2020 Venice Film Festival, One Night in Miami made history as being the first-ever film helmed by a Black woman to be selected at the prestige fest. Taking us from stage to screen (it’s based on Kemp Powers’ play of the same name), One Night in Miami follows the fictional storytelling of these four men and the real-life night that they celebrated Clay’s surprise win over Sonny Liston in February 1964. The film stars Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam Cooke), Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X), Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown) and Elie Goree (Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay).
Along with debuting an exclusive first image of Ben-Adir as Malcolm X (above), The Root got the opportunity to speak to King, Ben-Adir and Powers about the depth of what this film means and the dedication of each of the actors portraying such iconic men. King’s debut has gotten a lot of recent buzz simply for the fact that her new feature directorial credit exists, but the film also unexpectedly found itself in the center of another trending conversation.
Quotes from an interview Ben-Adir gave the LA Times began to surface in early September (right around the time of the film’s Venice premiere), sparking an ongoing debate surrounding Black British actors portraying significant Black American roles.
“I know about the conversation,” Ben-Adir said at the time. “Look, no disrespect to Americans, but America is the center of its own universe—culturally. It’s understandable that Samuel L. Jackson doesn’t have a clue what it’s like growing up as a Black man in inner-city London; he probably thinks we’re all sitting around drinking tea with the Queen, and it’s not the truth. The accent can be quite deceiving. It comes with a feeling of privilege and an air of everything’s rosy. I can tell you for a fact that standing up in a court of law here, in front of a white judge, as a Black man, you are nine times more likely than your white counterparts to get a stiffer sentence.”
The issue around this quote centered around the fact that while Ben-Adir expressed the hardships Black actors face in the U.K., the same is true for Black actors in the U.S. It’s not as much about self-indulgence as it is frustration toward a systemic practice based upon white supremacy that further erases and marginalizes Black American talent. The core of the issue lies in the historically racist structure that forces us to choose (and fight over) cinematic crumbs in the first place.
Amid the impassioned debate, actor Wendell Pierce tweeted, “Hollywood producers are huge Anglophiles who assume anything British is better. You are fortunate to reap the benefit of that. Don’t assume African American actors don’t know that. Don’t rationalize and normalize this prejudice as anything other than it is—biased.”
In her first (and only) time speaking about the matter, King directly addressed the controversy surrounding Ben-Adir’s comments. Since Ben-Adir had mentioned that he and King discussed the weight of his historic role extensively, I asked the two of them to provide us a bit more insight into their conversation.
“I had to ask him that question,” King told The Root. “Why did he want to play Malcolm? What was his knowledge on Malcolm? And was he ready for what some Americans may think about him playing Malcolm?”
“I was always understanding of Regina’s point of view, like...this is a huge bit of casting, period,” Ben-Adir told The Root. “To hand over to an actor who has some bits and pieces on television. This is my first time as ‘number one’ [on the call sheet] on set, playing someone of such importance not just to the Black community in America or the Black community around the world, but everyone in the world.”
Ben-Adir further explained that the two spoke for several hours on the subject of what it would mean for him to take the role. Both also expressed how necessary it was to get each other on a personal level, including each other’s background and family...all while not having the opportunity to bond this way in the same room.
“I was expressing to Regina how much Malcolm meant to me as an individual, how much Malcolm means to the Black community over here and how much Malcolm meant to my granddad and grandmother,” Ben-Adir added. “I just explained the significance of Malcolm to me, personally in my life and how important it was for me to play him. And that wasn’t lost on me.”
“I just want to make sure that people know that I wrote this first as a play,” Powers, who also wrote the adapted screenplay, chimed in. “I believe in a shared diasporic African experience. I believe that because I’m lucky. When this started as a play, I got to watch it travel from one American city to the next and watch very different groups of Black men channel their personal, painful experiences into these characters to bring them to life and connect to audiences in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Denver, [and] Miami. We call it the Brotherhood...for everyone who’s performed in the play.”
“But, then something amazing happened,” he continued. “I watched the play jump the pond, and it’s produced in London by an entire cast of Black Brits. I saw these Black Britains channel their own very unique Black British experiences and their passion into these characters and bring them to life with just as much vibrancy as their American counterparts. Then I got to watch it go to Johannesburg, where a cast of all Black South Africans channeled their unique South African personal experiences to bring this very American story to life. It really makes me believe that all Black people in the Western world have a shared, connected struggle. I know that because I’ve seen them all channel it through this piece.”
Additionally, King praised the immense dedication that each of the lead actors gave for this project, particularly the physical changes Ben-Adir and Goree underwent. King noted that Ben-Adir eventually lost 20 pounds in about 4-and-a-half weeks to play the Black activist icon, but there was one particular moment during the interview where her universally recognized voice rose in excited cadence about a scene, sharing that she was thrilled “to make a meal out of” the words on the page.
I admittedly didn’t realize the gravity of this until I saw the film in an advanced digital screener shortly after the interview. The scene—where Malcolm prays with Cassius in Arabic—is shot in an intimate symphony; a standout moment that mirrored the one in our interview. King’s confidence in Ben-Adir is inarguably clear, recounting how Anita Muhammad, a consultant representing the Nation of Islam, told her she was blown away by how quickly and accurately Ben-Adir had learned the prayer.
“There would come a point [during the casting process] where I was getting a little frustrated because there were a lot of actors that didn’t want to audition,” King said. “[They] just thought that it should be given to them because of just ‘name’ or whatever.”
“This isn’t about four impersonations,” Powers added, his passion for this work reverberating through the phone. “Not at all. It’s not about putting on a cute little Malcolm X costume, wearing some glasses and striking a pose to recreate a photo, you know what I mean? It’s not about any of that. It’s about this story we’re trying to tell. And these guys are vessels.”
“It’s unfortunate that the conversation is going to be what it is because of where Kingsley was born and raised,” King sighed. “The roles were for those that were going to [put in] blood, sweat, tears [and those who] were not going to sweep it without [doing each role justice]. The idea of anyone thinking that they could be doing a caricature was heartbreaking for them. But, they approached it like everything they drank and did was who they were playing. It was just an honor for me to be able to sit and watch it up close and personal.”
“What is your social responsibility as a successful Black man in a white society? That’s ultimately what this film with these guys are talking about,” Powers concluded. Whether it’s the complexities of our diasporic relationship across the globe, respectability politics, colorism, classism and beyond, these types of intraracial debates are uncomfortable at times, but they absolutely need to be had. We shouldn’t shy away from them.
Hell, once you see the film, you’ll realize it doesn’t shy away from it, either.
Following Venice, One Night in Miami is currently continuing its fall film festival circuit—next up, the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. Amazon Studios acquired One Night In Miami and plans to release it later this year.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.