Here are the facts. Cassius Clay, soon to be Muhammad Ali, defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title on Feb. 25, 1964. Clay was friends with the singer Sam Cooke; Jim Brown, the star Cleveland Browns running back (and later Hollywood star); and the Nation of Islam’s Malcolm X. It was because of Malcolm that Ali became a Muslim and changed his name.
Here is the movie. “One Night in Miami” takes those facts and imagines a meeting among the four men after the fight. Their get-together is equal parts celebration, reunion, debate, and personal reckoning.
Streaming on Amazon, the movie is based on a play by Kemp Powers (the co-writer and -director of Pixar’s “Soul”). Powers wrote the screenplay. Eli Goree stars as Clay; Leslie Odom Jr. (”Hamilton”) as Cooke; Aldis Hodge as Brown; and Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm.
Regina King directed. Although “One Night” is her feature debut, she’s directed a TV movie (”The Finest,” 2018) and more than a dozen TV episodes. King’s best known as an actress, of course: “Ray” (2004), “Watchmen” (2019). She won a best supporting actress Oscar for “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018).
Last Monday, King spoke via Zoom from Los Angeles about “One Night.” It made a difference that the interview was by Zoom, not telephone. King’s a wonderfully gestural talker, all hands and arms. That’s true whether the talking concerns her taste in cars, why she didn’t want Hodge to watch any of Brown’s movies, or the importance of showing that great men have vulnerabilities, too.
Q. You turn 50 on Friday [Jan. 15]. Early happy birthday! Was it easier or harder doing a movie that’s set before you were born?
A. I wouldn’t classify it as easier or harder. When you’re doing a film, you’re supposed to do your research, no matter what time period.
Q. Well, let me ask one specific period question. Which is cooler: the Cadillac convertible Jim Brown drives or Sam Cooke’s candy-apple-red sports car?
A. Jim Brown’s car! I’m an American-made girl. I’ve owned several Cadillacs throughout my years. I like good old American steel: the way the car kind of floats.
Q. Brown is the only one of the four who’s still living. Did you have any dealings with him?
A. No, I did not. But we do, actually, have a cameo of his daughter, who plays Sonny Liston’s wife. So that was a nice little throwback, if you will. So I did not get the opportunity to meet him and I encouraged Aldis not to reach out. I felt like the Jim we know today is a little different from the Jim we were portraying. I just wanted Aldis’s research and embodiment of Jim to be really specific to that time period. Aldis didn’t even watch any of the films he later did.
Q. These are very prominent people. To work, a performance just can’t be an impersonation.
A. Exactly. With all of the actors, in their auditions, I could see that they understood it as not an impersonation. It was not who could get the voice the best. It wasn’t about that. It was about capturing the spirit of who the men were. I could not see this film with anyone other than those four actors.
Q. You mention auditions. You’ve been on the other side of the table. How much has your acting informed your directing?
A. Oh, so much. Conversely, the directing has informed my acting as I’ve moved forward. I’ve got to tell you: Actors feel immediately when we have directors who don’t understand actors. It’s just obvious. It makes it even more difficult when you don’t feel the support of your director or the respect from your director. So I think my understanding that from an experiential place helps with my communication with actors as a director.
When I started out actually working as a director, then came back to work as an actor, it changed my perspective. You realize, wow, sometimes you’re coming in to work as an actor and you have just two scenes, and your director has been working all day, and night, for weeks in preparation for all of the scenes. And your character is equally important as what color that wall is going to be. You don’t look at it that way as an actor. You’re studying your own thing. So when I got back to work the first time as an actor, after my first big, meaty directing piece, I was always “Where do you want me? Tell me where you need me.”
Q. Is directing your first feature different from your previous directing?
A. It’s different, it’s different. With television, except for the film I did and a pilot, I was always coming in as a guest director. So everything was already established, as far as the aesthetic. With the film‚ you’re the one making those choices and employing the right people to execute those choices: putting the right team together, so you guys can all fly.
Q. What drew you to the script?
A. I just had never read anything like it and I wanted to be a part of — look, I couldn’t play any of the [lead] roles [laughs], so the next best thing would be to direct them. This is truly an actors’ piece. I was surprised when some actors wouldn’t come in to read. I was like, “Oh my God, this is an opportunity to sink your teeth into something.” So the opportunity to see these men as men and not just the titles we’ve put on them. Titles they’ve earned, of course. But we also put them on a pedestal. We look at them as if they are not flawed, that they aren’t vulnerable at times. The opportunity to be able to show the man behind the title just seemed like a great story to be able to tell.
Also, I was looking to tell a love story with a historical backdrop. And this is what came to me. It’s not a romance, but it’s a love story, a brotherhood, a bromance, if you will.
Q. Though there are glimpses of the relationship between Malcolm and [his wife] Betty Shabazz. That could be a movie itself.
A. Absolutely. You can see that there’s a true partnership there. While this is a film about these four men on this night, the scenes with Betty and Malcolm make you understand and love Malcolm even more in a way we’ve never considered him. Which is very important.
Q. Here’s an unfair question. Do you have a favorite of the four?
A. I don’t, I really don’t. They’re all so good as actors, and written so well by Kemp.
Q. He’s having quite a moment.
A. I mean! He’s quite talented, truly, truly.
Q. What’s next?
A. A few weeks ago I wrapped a film called “The Harder They Fall,” with a great cast: Idris Elba, Lakeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz, Jonathan Majors. Gosh, did I say Delroy Lindo?
Q. You didn’t.
A. Delroy Lindo. It’s a powerful group of actors. And it’s a western!
Q. Do you get to ride a horse?
A. I do, I do, I do. Can’t say I can’t wait to get back on a horse, but they are beautiful creatures, absolutely.
Interview was edited and condensed.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.