Even in pandemic, Regina King is ruling the festival circuit.
The Oscar-winning actress brought her directorial debut “One Night in Miami” to the Toronto International Film Festival Friday, where it swiftly collected rave reviews and a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film imagines a night in February 1964, when real-life friends Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) gather to celebrate the soon-to-be-known-as Muhammed Ali’s crowning as heavyweight champion of the world.
The audience lives vicariously through the four famous men depicted onscreen as they let their guard down behind closed doors and begin to challenge each other’s responsibility to take on racial injustice.
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USA TODAY’s film critic Brian Truitt called it “one of the best movies of the year,” noting that “King’s greatest feat is showing these larger-than-life figures as wholly human, talking, laughing and arguing about race, religion, power and their own insecurities.”
Why take on this verbose stage play adaptation for her directorial debut?
“I had never seen conversations like this happen on the screen – small screen or big screen,” said King during a virtual press conference for the film Friday alongside her stars and screenwriter Kemp Powers. “And while it was through the voices of these legendary men, I felt like I was listening to conversation with just Black men speaking about the Black men’s experiences. And I wanted in on that.”
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This year’s Toronto festival is largely virtual, and that means no red carpets and no standing ovations, making it a far cry from when King arrived at the festival in 2018 to launch “If Beale Street Could Talk,” a film that would propel her to an Oscar win for best supporting actress for her role. She didn’t ignore the disparity.
“It’s bittersweet because we can’t actually be there in arms together,” said King, appearing on camera from her home. “Because this would have been our North American debut and our opportunity to share this on our soil. And it’s not happening. There’s a little bit of me that feels a bit sad about that.”
King was also open about the bumpy ride “One Night in Miami” has had this year with a coronavirus-mandated production stoppage in March that left her film three crucial scenes short.
“The things that are being discussed in the film are just as relevant now as they were 60 years ago,” she said. And following a summer of racial reckoning, “we all talked and we were like we’ve got to figure out a way to get this out now.” Eventually, King said, they were able to make the last two scenes with Goree and Odom Jr. happen with COVID-19 testing and a small crew of 60.
Hodge (“Hidden Figures”) hopes the film helps drive productive debate about racial justice and progress in America.
The famous men depicted in “One Night in Miami,” he added, are “still Black in America” – grappling with how, and when, to use their influence. “What we’re seeing is them understanding the nature of their presence … they’re having a conversation to figure out how can we use this to really benefit our people? To really help in the struggle?”
Meanwhile, Odom Jr., who famously starred in “Hamilton” as Aaron Burr, will just as likely blow ’em all away with his performance playing (and singing as) the legendary crooner Cooke.
Odom Jr. admitted Friday the weight of playing Cooke “never went away.”
“Sam Cooke is the bar for all modern male singing,” he added. “If you’re singing soul, R&B, crooning, Sam covered the gamut. Sam influenced all my other heroes, too.”