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Regina King’s first film captures a historical moment behind closed doors

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: And now: An historical closed-door meeting leads to a big screen reimagining.

Renowned actor Regina King, directing her first feature film, showcases the meaning of that moment that resonates with this moment now.

Jeffrey Brown takes a look at "One Night in Miami," currently streaming on Amazon, as part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas

Eli Gore: Yes, Cassius Marcellus Clay the new heavyweight champ of the world, boys.

Actor: Yes, he is.

Jeffrey Brown: February 25, 1964, 22-year-old Cassius Clay, soon to be known as Muhammad Ali, has just defeated Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world.

Eli Gore: Why am I so pretty?

Jeffrey Brown: After the action in the ring, Clay and three famous friends get together in a motel room for the real action, deeply personal debates over their work and responsibilities as Black men.

Kingsley Ben-Adir: That is why brother Sam, this movement that we are in is called a struggle, because we are fighting for our lives.

Regina King: I immediately felt that the dialogue was the star.

Jeffrey Brown: For Regina King, "One Night in Miami" was irresistible, the words, issues and emotions alive then and now.

Regina King: It is a representation of men that I know and love and the type of conversations that they're having and that they don't get an opportunity to see themselves in cinema that often look and feel the way they feel in real life.

Jeffrey Brown: The 1964 gathering actually took place. And what a group. Ali, one of the greatest boxers of all time, played by Eli Goree. Jim Brown, legendary NFL Hall of Fame running back, played by Aldis Hodge.

Sam Cooke, singer songwriter producer extraordinaire, played by Leslie Odom Jr. of "Hamilton" fame, and Malcolm X, a charismatic Black nationalist leader and minister of the Nation of Islam, played by Kingsley Ben-Adir.

One photo exists of Malcolm and Ali that night. It was used for a scene in the film. What actually happened that night, though, was imagined by writer Kemp Powers, first in his 2013 play "One Night in Miami," now as the film's screenwriter.

Kemp Powers: They were significant then. They're significant now. And one can't help but wonder what a group like that might discuss if gathered together in a room. I mean, who wouldn't want to be a fly on the wall?

Jeffrey Brown: All were personal or professional crossroads, having reached unimagined heights, but facing doubts about the way forward.

Kemp Powers: When the play was first produced, I was actually older, at 40, than all the men in that room. And that really struck me, because we think of these men doing amazing, transformative things with the benefit of age and wisdom.

But the reality is, they were young, and, in many cases, they didn't know what they were doing. And they were often taking leaps of faith and believing in themselves.

Jeffrey Brown: Also challenging each other. Does economic success bring personal freedom? At what cost? In this scene, Malcolm X takes on Sam Cooke for what he sees as pandering to white audiences.

Kingsley Ben-Adir: You say pissed off, brother Sam? You know, what is going on around us, it should make everyone angry. You bourgeois Negroes, you're too happy with your scraps to really understand what is at stake here.

What, you think Cas being the world champ is going to protect him from the devils that harassed him from the first day that he got here?

Jeffrey Brown: Regina King herself is known for powerful performances, including an Oscar-winning role in "If Beale Street Could Talk."

Regina King: We are drinking to new life.

Jeffrey Brown: And for speaking out on giving women more positions of power in Hollywood.

Regina King: Everything that I produce, that is 50 percent women.

A lot of artists will have a conversation like this and even just an inner conversation.

Jeffrey Brown: Did this have a personal connection for you?

Regina King: Absolutely. And, for me, reading this script the first time, it was just a great, again, confirmation that, all right, you are figuring it out, how you're going to use your platform, and there is not a specific way.

Jeffrey Brown: For writer Kemp Powers, who's also co-written and co-directed the new Pixar film "Soul," this was also personal.

Kemp Powers: The debate that they're having, that's a debate me and my friends would have. I'm just reverse-engineering it into the mouths of the men who inspired that way of thinking.

Jeffrey Brown: But those things aren't normally seen in the theater or in the movies, right?

Kemp Powers: Well, they are seen in the theater, just not as often with Black characters.

It strikes a chord because, again, how many plays have I seen where I have seen middle-aged white men struggle through their midlife crisis stuck in a room? But no one's ever questioned if we have had too many of these stories.

(LAUGHTER)

Kemp Powers: So, I mean, that's the question to the industry.

Jeffrey Brown: Within a year of that night in Miami, two of the protagonists were dead, Malcolm X assassinated at age 39 after his bitter split from the Nation of Islam. Sam Cooke was shot in a Los Angeles motel under suspicious circumstances. He was 33.

Muhammad Ali had his title stripped for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War, won it back, and achieved a level of global adoration rare in sports history. He died in 2016 at age 74. Only Jim Brown, who went on to a film career, remains alive.

Regina King finished her film even as the culture was again convulsed by protests over racial injustice.

Regina King: As much as we love being Americans and love America, just even what's going on now, and I think I have heard president-elect Biden say, America, this isn't us.

It is us. It is a part of who we are. The question is, how are we -- are we going to change what we write in history to come?

Jeffrey Brown: King says she enjoys the different rhythms of acting and directing and will continue to alternate between them.

Actor: We have to be there for each other.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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