Regina King Raced to Finish the Last Three Scenes of ‘One Night in Miami’ in the Pandemic

TIFF: The release of "One Night in Miami" was almost pushed back after the pandemic hit. But then the U.S. was hit with a racial reckoning.
"One Night in Miami"
On one incredible night in 1964, four icons of sports, music, and activism gathered to celebrate one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. When underdog Cassius Clay, soon to be called Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), defeats heavy weight champion Sonny Liston at the Miami Convention Hall, Clay memorialized the event with three of his friends: Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). Based on the award-winning play of the same name by Kemp Powers, who also adapted it to screenplay, and directed by Regina King, her feature directorial debut, "One Night In Miami" is a fictional account inspired by the historic night these four formidable figures spent together. The film digs into the struggles they each faced and the vital role they played in the civil rights movement and cultural upheaval of the 1960s. More than 50 years later, their conversations on racial injustice, religion, and personal responsibility still resonate. This movie is a love letter to the Black man’s experience in America. It depicts these icons as men first, human beings, close friends who could be brutally honest with each other at a time of hard-fought change which still resonates today. Unfortunately, the recent police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor imply that the struggle for racial equality continues. It's an impressive debut for King.

Production had nearly wrapped on Regina King’s “One Night in Miami” when the pandemic hit in March, forcing King to hit pause on her Black historical drama. Though there were only two shooting days left, the filmmakers planned to regroup at a future date. But then police killed Breonna Taylor. Then George Floyd. Then came the unprecedented reckoning by Americans of their county’s racist foundations. Suddenly, King said her film was needed now more than ever.

“People exploded. We were now in this powder-keg moment,” King recalled during an online panel at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday. “The producers on the film, we all talked, and we were like ‘We’ve got to figure out a way to get this out now.'”

King and her collaborators were right. They finished shooting, with a 60-person crew, three scenes featuring Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Cassius Clay (Eli Goree). King and Tariq Anwar continued editing the film. And somewhere along the line, Amazon landed worldwide rights for the movie in an eight-figure deal after a bidding war. The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival last week to universal raves, entered the Oscar race, and will get its TIFF bow this weekend.

Based on a play of the same name by Kemp Powers — who also wrote the screenplay — the dialogue-driven film unfolds largely over a fictionalized night in which real-life friends Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke, Malcolm X( Kingsley Ben-Adir), and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) celebrate Clay’s surprise title win over Sonny Liston, before Clay took the name Muhammad Ali.

King, making her feature directorial debut, joined the project after her agent sent her the script. “I had never seen conversations like this happen before on the screen,” she said. “While it was through the voices of these legendary men, I felt like I was listening to conversations from Black men speaking about the Black man’s experience — and I wanted in on that!”

Each man in “One Night in Miami” delivers a differing perspective on their status as Black public figures navigating their roles in the Civil Rights movement and in a capitalist system, themes just as relevant six decades ago as they are today. Cooke and Malcolm go at it most intensely, with Malcolm’s Black separatist views standing in sharp contrast to Cooke’s savvy ability to achieve financial success within the white supremacy of the music industry.

“I wanted to show men that we see as iconic and indestructible in moments of vulnerability and do it in a way [where] that vulnerability isn’t a bad thing at all,” Powers said. “The conversation that I wanted these guys to have, it’s honestly a conversation that me and my buddies had freshman year in the dormitory at Howard (University) … you have dreams, you want to have success as a Black man. But when you get to that point, when you have it, it always comes with an asterisk. It’s questions like, ‘How much do I have to compromise myself to succeed in this world that, at times, can be very hostile towards me?'”

Odom said the film allowed him and his co-stars to bring their lived experience to the screen.

“It felt a little dangerous and felt exciting — this was a private conversation we were going to have in public,” he said. “When my white manager was reading the script, he was like, ‘You know, I’ve never been a party to a conversation like this. I felt a little like, should I be hearing them?'”

Hodge said he hopes the film will be a tool to help people navigate today’s racial climate.

“We have an opportunity to really relay the message to those who really don’t understand it. We have an opportunity to teach those who are trying to have the conversation how to have the conversation, how to continue to debate positively to continue aiming for progress,” he said.

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