“One Night in Miami” director Regina King carries a jump rope to set, keeping it in her backpack until those particularly tense moments when everything goes haywire behind the scenes — like when an actor needs a pep talk, the crew has a tech issue or the weather shuts down production. In these instances, the filmmaker breaks out the jump rope for a two-minute surge of oxygen to keep her head in the game.
“I like to call myself a control enthusiast,” King says, explaining how she’s adapted her working style from actor to the director managing the set. “Going into it, I’m like ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ But it’s terrifying at first. You’re always up against the clock. A question needs to be answered by you. And you still have to stay focused and, even if something changes, you have to come up with a solution. You still want to stay the course.”
In conversation for Variety’s “Directors on Directors” series, King and “Queen and Slim” director Melina Matsoukas share how their make-it-work attitudes have paid dividends as they crafted their feature directorial debuts.
“When you’re in it, I really feel like it’s a mental war. You’re fighting for every shot, for every moment, for everything,” Matsoukas notes. “It’s not easy, it’s not for the weak.”
King’s piece of historical fiction centered on four of history’s most legendary men — Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Cassius Clay and Sam Cooke — and Matouskas’ romantic drama about two young people on the run after a traffic stop gone bad, have a few obvious connections. Both films are about legacy, community and are love letters to Black people, but that’s not the only reasons that the films are alike.
It’s also not just because Matsoukas is an exec producer on HBO’s “Insecure,” for which King directed the Season 3 finale “Ghost-like.” Ultimately, King and Matsoukas belong to a special order of visual storytellers: Black women taking charge behind the scenes and working to make a way for those to come after them.
With “One Night in Miami” and “Queen and Slim,” both filmmakers took full advantage of their first opportunity to craft a film, knowing that despite all of their success in other mediums (Matsoukas is a two-time Grammy-winning music video director, while King is an Oscar- and four-time Emmy-winning actor), opportunities for women to direct movies have been few.
“It is not lost on me that the respect that I’ve garnered as an actor definitely carried over as a director,” King says. “And I know a lot of young directors or women directors who don’t have that walking in, and so that’s not lost on me.”
“And you delivered. That’s another thing: when you get these opportunities, especially, I think, as Black women, we are not allowed to fail,” Matsoukas says before King interjects, “We can’t. We don’t fail up.”
“When you deliver,” Matsoukas continues, “you’re also widening the door and opening that gate and allowing other people to come in and have those opportunities as well, you know, and that’s another very heavy burden we we carry.”
Read the conversation below and watch the interview above.
Melina Matsoukas: It’s such a pleasure to talk to you. I’m such a huge fan of yours all the way back to “227” and “Poetic Justice” and “Boyz n the Hood.” And all those amazing films we grew up with, seeing your progression as an actress into “Watchmen” and “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and we work together on “Insecure.” You came in and killed it on an episode. It was really inspiring to see someone that I’ve always looked at as such an amazing actress really take command of a set and be able to talk to actors in a way that I could only dream of, and really have a strong, visual language.
And now to see you with your first debut feature film with “One Night in Miami,” talk to us about that. Obviously there’s such a responsibility when you’re dealing with Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown.
What was your approach to the telling of that story? What was the responsibility you felt? And the fear and why this film?
Regina King: Well, first of all, you said “that you can only dream of,” girl you’ve been living it. I am equally a fan of yours, your work has always been very purposed. It’s very clear the story that you’re telling. My introduction to you was through Beyoncé’s [music] videos, and you were telling such amazing visual stories. The volume can down and we’re watching and understand the story that’s being told. So you ain’t dreaming, sis you you’re living it.
Matsoukas: It’s being inspired by you and so many of our fellow filmmakers, especially Black women, filmmakers, I’m so inspired by the different stories we tell.
King: That’s the thing, we pull inspiration from everywhere as directors. Why this film, so many different reasons. One, I did not know that this night existed. I had no idea. It was a screenplay, Kemp Powers, wrote the play, he adapted it into a screenplay. I read the [adaptation] and I was like, “This is this brother’s first screenplay?” No, no way. Impossible. So I bought the play so could see what changes were made. I was just so impressed. And I got so clearly his intention. That while these men are giants, these conversations were conversations that Black men and Black people are having, no matter what you’re timing. It also was a celebration of being a Black man. And it was really clear to me, Kemp loves and appreciates being a Black man with all of the things that come along with being a Black man in America, that really resonated for me. And then it’s an actor’s piece. It was one of those things, “Man, I will play in any one of these characters! But I can’t, next best thing is to direct.”
I was looking for a romance, the script came to me and while it’s not the typical romance it is a bromance.
Matsoukas: It really is a romance. It’s a it’s a love of Black men, especially from a Black woman director. The love that those brothers have for each other, we don’t really get to see that represented.
King: No we don’t get to see that brotherhood.
Matsoukas: It really takes away that competitive nature, which they all had. Just to see the support and empowering from one friend to another. And also the challenging each other, to be better, to be greater to, to keep challenging the status quo. It was so inspiring, not just as as audience members, but also in my life. Thinking about my friendships, “Do I have these kind of friends?” I definitely do.
King: Thank god, right?
Matsoukas: They’ll tell you about yourself, and then also, help you on that journey and inspire.
King: The thing that you know, you pointed out about inspiring and supporting each other. Another thing that I think is really special about what Kemp did is we saw how they celebrated each other as well. Even though you, Malcolm and Sam have this debate going on, they still celebrate each other.
Matsoukas: Absolutely when Malcolm said, “I haven’t been to not one show, but five shows.” You saw how much Sam had inspired him and saw much potential he saw with Sam’s voice and how much he took an incorporated into his own speaking. I never thought about that. How much we support each other in the struggle in the movement in the industry. It’s also relevant.
I’m also working on a couple projects that have come from a book or a play, how do you visualize that? How did you bring that to life? What did you want to change?
King: The beautiful thing about my situation is the work was there, Kemp did such a great job of humanizing these men, making us look at them as men first. In the beginning, we get to see them, you know, getting punched, in their own struggle. That immediately takes the titles off, you immediately as an audience member, lean in. I wanted to lean even harder on seeing Malcolm in a way, we never really get to see him portrayed. And that’s the vulnerability.
Each of these men have one of those moments. It’s actually in my opinion, the vulnerability that makes them strong. I wanted to lean into that. It was going to be a balance because you don’t want you know, especially our men, “You’re going to make me look like a punk.” I definitely did not want, none of them were that at all. Their legacy speak for themselves. I felt it was important to remind people that even those that we think are so successful and so strong, that they still have fears and concerns as human.
Matsoukas: Seeing that vulnerability between Black men visualized in that way was really powerful. It was really great…
And those performances. I mean, honestly, that’s something that I continue to work at. I always admire people who come from acting and have more knowledge in that than I do. That’s always something that I struggle with a little bit on set. And every actor was different, right? So how do I bring out the best person and you had so many strong performances? What’s your approach working with actors?
King: Well, the fact that you understand that every actor is different, that’s half the battle right there. It’s so frustrating, as an actor, when you have a director that comes in, and you feel like their regard for an actor is kind of “stop and shop.” You could take one out, put another in. That’s very frustrating. And actors, we feel that we feel that when a director doesn’t really respect or understand that we are sensitive people.
Matsoukas: I will make or break your film or your TV show, whatever you’re doing if you can pull great performance out of somebody, just throw it away.
King: Being an actor, I’m extra sensitive to that. And you already know this, as a director, there’s so much psychology involved in the day in communication. I try to figure out as quickly as possible, what that actor’s style of communication is. You’re probably already doing this. Probably now that I’ll say this, you’ll go “When I’m talking to Yvonne [Orji] I’m using my hands more or I use these words more. When I’m talking to Issa [Rae] I say very little.”
Matsoukas: Or it’s more philosophical.
King: You find that out quickly. I find that the best way to figure that out is early on, I’m just having conversations with the actors, getting to know them. Almost like a conversation that you have with somebody at the bar that you just met, “So tell me where you’re from?” You’re observing them, you’re seeing their mannerisms. You’re seeing what questions trigger a certain reaction. You’re able to get an idea of what style makes sense. For some actors, they like a challenge. If you say, “We were doing Jack’s coverage, he blew this shit up. You’re not quite there yet. Some actors thrive off of that. They’re like an athlete in that regard. Other actors if you said something like that they would just implode.
Matsoukas: What was the feeling like coming from being an actress to then showing up and it’s your set
King: I mean, first of all, I like to call myself a control enthusiast. Like you said, it is terrifying at first. Because you’re always up against the clock. Always a question needs to be answered by you. And you still have to stay focused and, even if something changes, and you have to come up with a solution, you still want to stay the course right.
Matsoukas: And feel inspired right? You have all this happening, they’re telling you to cut that, this is messing you up, now you’re mad at everybody. No you have actor that needs something from you and you’re like, “Okay, let me change my attitude.”
King: Well, I find myself having to do personal Regina attitude checks, always.
Matsoukas: How do you do that?
King: Girl, I jumprope. I keep my jump rope in my backpack all the time. When those moments come up, I just go over to the side and just hit that jump rope for like two minutes. It just wow. A little oxygen goes to the brain, I calm down a little bit.
Matsoukas: I looked him up Flip Schulke, who had the the photographs of Muhammad Ali underwater. Seeing some of those moments was was really incredible.
King: It’s those moments the underwater shot. We’ve seen that photograph so many times, but we haven’t seen it in color.
Matsoukas: Seeing how it was was created. It’s those moments that really resonate. Because you feel like you know this moment and now we are in it living it was incredible.
King: Don’t you think those are the things that kind of bring your audience in and kind of help them stay? Because at the end, people were getting really great feedback. And that’s awesome. But we knew that, you can’t just present, this is going to be a film with four men talking. For most people it’s going to be a definite “Yeah no, I’m good.” But when you use Cassius as the Trojan horse, you come in boxing, and he’s just so charismatic.
People don’t realize why the onset photography is so important, especially with the independent film, it’s gone a long way. Who would have thought that we would have ended up in a pandemic, and we can’t get our four actors to do a proper photoshoot?
Matsoukas: We put so much towards it as well. We had four different fine art photographers come along and interpret it in their way. It was great because we had all these beautiful assets, and it really felt like fine art. You don’t realize that the marketing of your film is also part of the directing of a film. You want to make sure that it’s telling the narrative that is moving it forward or selling their film in the proper way, and that you have control of it, that is aligned with your vision.
King: That’s something that I think is really a strength of yours. I feel like you came into it understanding that.
Matsoukas: I learned it on this film “Queen & Slim,” I knew I wanted certain people to come in and shoot, but then I really was able to take control of the marketing of it. And I really enjoy that aspect. I come from music videos and commercials, I come from advertising. I’m always selling a brand or someone else’s story. And now I got to sell my own story. I know this world and I love art. It was wonderful, just selfishly to be able to work with so many different Black artists to come in and interpret the film in their way, that was really special.
Matsoukas: So what’s next for you? Where do you want to take your career?
King: As a director, I’m ready to do a more muscular piece. I know that I can deliver that. I’m ready for that challenge.
Matsoukas: Anything yet?
King: There’s something, there’s something.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity, watch the full video conversation above.