Regina King—Long May She Reign
October 13, 2020
Article taken from Glamour.
In the middle of one of the most rewarding periods of King’s career and an unprecedented crisis in the world around her, the actor and director is stepping into the spotlight—and her power.
Regina King has survivor’s guilt.
Somehow, amid the relentless existential punishment of 2020, King is having one of the best years of a multidecade career in a business that can be notoriously unfriendly to Black women.
At the beginning of September, King became the first Black woman director in the 87-year history of the Venice Film Festival to have her work screened as part of the programming. Though it was not competing for a prize, One Night in Miami made its world premiere in Venice. King’s feature directorial debut is an adaptation of the Kemp Powers play of the same name, which follows Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown through a night of celebration, conflict, fellowship, and moral and political epiphany after Clay defeats Sonny Liston to claim the world heavyweight boxing championship title.
Weeks later, King accepted her fourth prime-time Emmy for playing Sister Night, a.k.a. Angela Abar, in HBO’s Watchmen, the brilliant, devastating miniseries “remix” of the much lauded comic series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. She accepted the Emmy for leading actress in a limited series in a striking fuchsia Schiaparelli pantsuit, soft curls piled atop her head. Under her blazer, she wore a T-shirt that bore Breonna Taylor’s face, accompanied by the words “SAY HER NAME.”
“Gotta vote,” she said, having accepted the Emmy statue from a trophy bearer dispatched by the Television Academy. “I would be remiss not to mention that, being part of a show as prescient as Watchmen. Have a voting plan.”
She ended her thank-yous, eyes bright, with a shout-out to the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “Rest in power, RBG,” King said, fully acknowledging the swirl of anxiety-producing developments happening in the world.
For King, it seems, every professional triumph of 2020 has been paired with a pain that never gets dull no matter how familiar it becomes—the pain of knowing people who look like you, like Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Jacob Blake, and Taylor, may be mown down, their lives stolen at any second, and that justice for their slayings lingers more as a mirage than actual possibility.
The same week that King won her Emmy, Kentucky attorney general Daniel Cameron announced that the grand jury would not be indicting the Louisville police officers for the death of Taylor, the result of a fatally errant drug raid. And so it’s been a year of enormous highs and extreme lows for King, who is now considered to be a heavy favorite to make history in the Oscar race because of One Night in Miami.
If nominated for best director, she would become the first Black woman to do so. It’s a strange year for everything to be going so well in her life.
“For that to be the case and all of this to be going on is bittersweet, sobering,” King says when I speak to her via Zoom in early September. “I’ll tell you one thing, though: I am grateful that the universe brought this movie to me, because it does make me feel like through art, we—when I say ‘we,’ the filmmakers, everyone that had something to do with this story—have an opportunity to put something out that feels like we are being active, that we are activators. I feel like there’s no mistake that the subject matter of this film is what it is and coming out at this time. I do feel that we were all designed for a moment. I mean, not designed just for one moment, but this moment we were supposed to all come together, everyone on this project, because this moment was so much bigger than One Night in Miami.”
King, 49, is at home in Los Angeles prepping for her next role in a western called The Harder They Fall, in which she’ll costar alongside Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, and Jonathan Majors. Rocking a black Directors Guild of America cap and modest silver hoop earrings, King tries to squeeze in some bites of dinner between obligations. The woman whom so many know for her confidence, her leadership, and her steadfast commitment to bringing racial and gender parity to Hollywood says she is trying to allow herself to absorb and truly feel the blows of Black tragedy during a deadly pandemic that has disproportionately claimed Black lives.
“I’m just allowing myself to be okay with being emotional and being honest about being emotional,” King says, admitting that she too, had internalized ideas about stoicism being synonymous with strength. “I really think it’s really important to be honest about all the stuff that we’re feeling right now. The worst thing that we can do is to not be true to ourselves about how we feel.”
I do feel that we were all designed for a moment.
King is a mother herself, to one son, Ian Alexander Jr. In many ways, One Night in Miami is a love letter to him and the other Black men in King’s life, and he was one of the first to screen it when she completed it. At 24, Alexander is just two years older than Clay’s character is in the film. Like every other Black mother in America, King has been engaged in an ongoing conversation with Ian since he entered puberty about how to be safe in a country that is stained by fundamentally racist systems. When Ian began learning how to drive, he had a completely different experience from that of a white friend the same age, King said in a recent interview with Jimmy Kimmel. In addition to the basics of turn signals in parallel parking, she was imparting lessons to her son to give him the best shot at staying alive in the inevitable event that he was pulled over by police.
King has carried that deep, soul-rooted anxiety into roles as mothers of Black sons in American Crime and Seven Seconds. Her acting work is meticulous and disciplined without shouting about the effort that goes into making it so, and her approach to directing is similar.
“She can do anything,” says actor Gabrielle Union, one of King’s longtime friends and colleagues, whom King directed when she helmed an episode of the BET drama Being Mary Jane. “She’s not pigeonholed by genre or character type or generation or time period. She moves effortlessly through all of it.”
One Night in Miami unfurls with quiet patience, content to bask in the brotherly love of four Black men enjoying one another as they’re at the top of their respective games. It builds, almost imperceptibly, then lets its final frames wash over the viewer to inspire a sense of urgency and purpose they never anticipate. It’s an incredible feat of filmmaking, and yet, even as she talks about her work, King can’t help but be generous with praise to the point of deflection. She recasts the spotlight not only toward her actors but the film’s editor, Tariq Anwar.
Still, when the moment comes to stand in the spotlight and fully command the power of a platform for the good of many, King is seemingly always ready. When she won the Golden Globe in 2019 for If Beale Street Could Talk, King seized the moment and held it. Producers of the televised broadcast started playing music to cue her to leave the stage at the Beverly Hilton.
She kept speaking anyway. They cut the music.
“I’m going to use my platform right now to say in the next two years, everything that I produce, I am making a vow—and it’s going to be tough—to make sure that everything that I produce, that it’s 50% women,” King told the audience. “I just challenge anyone out there who is in a position of power—not just in our industry, in all industries—I challenge you to challenge yourselves and stand with us in solidarity and do the same.”
There, she was a shimmering beacon for all the women in the room, in a rose gold sequined column of a gown designed by Alberta Ferretti. But in September she was just Regina King, round-the-way homegirl, working her way through her feelings.
“There are moments where I feel like when I can look back in life and definitely see that maybe I have more power than I thought I had, and because I didn’t know, I didn’t access it. I didn’t allow myself to utilize it, because I just did not realize it,” King says. “I can’t say that there was a moment, a particular moment, where a light bulb went off that was like, ‘Wow. You’ve got some cachet. You can move something.’ But I will say that thank God for wisdom because I am much more in tune with that power….”
Power, King says, doesn’t have to be hierarchical. It should be about purpose.
“I’m hesitating when I’m speaking about power as it relates to me because I have this concern that it will come off like a dictator or something like that,” King says, articulating the tightrope that so many women in leadership walk in their careers. A hint of smile begins to creep across her lips, and her eyes light up a little.
“There’s that part of me that always wants to be careful not to come off like that, but I am definitely a person that likes to be in control,” she says. “I guess I’m a walking contradiction. I think that’s just human nature.”
To listen to her friends and peers, King is the furthest thing from a dictator. She models leadership that relies on frankness, on upholding a standard of greatness. And that approach has garnered her nearly universal respect.
“Everybody feels like they have a piece of her, right? They feel like they know her, that she’s everybody’s friend,” says actor Holly Robinson Peete. “And I kind of think of her as, like, the female Tom Hanks. You know, there’s no one that doesn’t love Tom Hanks. Regina is that person in this business where everyone is just constantly rooting for her.”
No wonder Captain America himself proffered a steadying arm to King as she climbed the steps of the Dolby Theatre in 2019 to accept her Oscar, one of those Hollywood moments that just made the viewing public swoon for the both of them.
When directing, King uses that social capital to communicate the faith she has in her actors’ ability to meet her high expectations. Being directed by a friend can be tricky, Union says, because they don’t always push back on acting decisions that are lazy or complacent. When it happened on the set of Being Mary Jane, King took Union aside. The two women sat on the steps of Union’s trailer eating dill-flavored sunflower seeds.
“She was like, ‘Gab, cut the shit.’ And I cut the shit,” Union says.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, King launched her career as a teenager, with the role of Brenda Jenkins on 227, which aired from 1985 to 1990, and she developed an ability for shining in supporting roles, in each instance making a meal of limited screen time to craft characters just as memorable as her leading men. There was Marcee Tidwell in Jerry Maguire, the focused and firm better half to Cuba Gooding Jr.’s emotionally erratic, job-security-seeking NFL wide receiver. As Carla Dean, King played Will Smith’s sexy ACLU attorney wife, raising valuable, commonsense questions about the breadth and power of the American governmental surveillance in Enemy of the State. And in Ray, King held her ground as Margie Hendricks, the sultry yet resolute lead singer of the Raelettes, Ray Charles’s backup singers.
Nevertheless, she swerved to avoid being pigeonholed when offered a chance to play Samuel L. Jackson’s wife in The Negotiator (1998), offering up wisdom that ran contrary to Hollywood’s regular environment of youth-obsessed male wish fulfillment. “Don’t get me wrong, Sam is incredible, but don’t you think I should be his daughter?” she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2001. She had a point—Jackson is more than 20 years her senior.
She’s got enviable comedic chops too, which she brought to the sequel of Miss Congeniality, in which she ends up doing an ad hoc performance of “Proud Mary” with Sandra Bullock dressed as what one imagines Big Bird would look like if he ever decided to become a Vegas showgirl.
The commitment to versatility, variety, rigor, and depth was deliberate, gleaned from years of observation.
“I’ve never been one certain thing,” King said in the same 2001 Post-Gazette interview. “Not until Halle Berry played Dorothy Dandridge did people really look at her as being a good actress. People just looked at her as being a beautiful woman. I’ve played very different people. You can have a much longer career playing distinctively different characters than you can being just a sex symbol.”
Regardless of what the future may hold for King, she is, as much as she can, holding fast to her joy, knowing that it is earned, and deserved, even in the midst of tragedy. She has stepped into her own light, using her gifts for wielding emotion, and her natural inclination toward leadership, to make change wherever and however she can.
“When you’re on another GoFundMe page donating something…it’s still not feeling like I’m doing enough, and I have, in comparison to a lot of people, I have so much,” King says. There’s that survivor’s guilt again. And so King does what Meryl Streep, the grand dame of actors, advised in a Golden Globes speech of her own in 2017, following the death of Carrie Fisher: “Take your broken heart, and make it into art.”
I would like in my lifetime to see what a changed system look like.
“I am happy,” King says. “I am overall. I am happy. I am filled with gratitude, but I do realize that I would like in my lifetime to see what the other side of this looks like—the other side of what a changed system looks like, true systematic change. Great ideals, great ideals, but when and where are we going to see it? It feels like we are in this powder keg moment, but it feels like…that phoenix rising from the ashes. I’ve got to believe that a phoenix is going to rise as all of this shit burns down. I say that and I’m including everything from the climate changing to the pandemic. It’s just so much. It’s so much and it’s all happening at once.
“I think we’ve had a lot of decades of people just in their own box doing their own thing,” she continues “I’ve been guilty for it in some spaces in life, because you’re just trying to get your thing going that you’re not paying attention to what’s going on around. But it feels like people are paying attention. I got to believe that more people are paying attention than not. I got to. When the protests were starting to happen and we were seeing people in Asian countries with their masks on with Black Lives Matter signs—I mean, I’m about to start getting emotional now.”
King’s voice begins to crack.
“That gave me so much hope, and I don’t think that if we weren’t in the middle of corona when that happened, I don’t think that the world would’ve been paying attention. We just keep getting hit on the chin. You don’t want these men, these Black men and Black women to die, continue to die. You hate to look at them as martyrs, but if Jacob Blake hadn’t happened, would everything have calmed down? Would people have stopped making noise?”
King starts weeping, pushing through to finish her thought:
“If there wasn’t another, but it’s so painful when it is another. It took cell phones with cameras to happen, to be in effect, for people to start believing it, and then years of cell phone footage. I mean, Rodney King wasn’t cell phone footage, but shit. Rodney King was the first on camera, but we all know somebody that got beat down before Rodney King. Then our parents knew someone, and their parents. I am believing that because it’s all here for everyone right now, I’ve got to believe that we’re at a place that as the world we’re hearing all the time, we’re at our true reckoning.”