The Rise of Regina King
December 1, 2020
Article taken from WSJ.
For three decades, Academy Award–winning actor Regina King has captivated audiences on screen. Now, with her feature directorial debut, ‘One Night in Miami,’ she takes on a defining new role.
One day this past spring, Regina King began carving out a roughly 5-by-20-foot plot of soil behind her home in Los Angeles to plant some seeds. She got the idea from a friend, fellow actor Anthony Anderson, who’d shown her pictures of his meticulously cultivated garden and thus inspired her to start her own. It’s a pastime that requires patience. But this was in the throes of collective isolation, when everyone frantically sought out hobbies, and there was time to sit and watch grass grow.
Every day, in between binge-watching shows like Ozark and Kim’s Convenience, King, 49, would tend to her crops, the reward for which was three yields of several types of kale, as well as tomatoes, jalapeño and serrano peppers and onions—ingredients she used to make large amounts of salsa. Now that she’s tried her hand at horticulture—a suitable end-of-the-world skill—her new fantasy is to purchase two or three acres of property, she says: “Just enough for me to live off the land.”
After three-plus decades on-screen, King had her breakthrough lead role, in 2019’s Watchmen; and this year she directed her first feature film, One Night in Miami, an adaptation of playwright Kemp Powers’s 2013 stage imagining of conversations between four Black legends. Now, after years of momentum, an expansive body of work in film and television as an actor, director and producer, and numerous awards, she is regarded as one of Hollywood’s most dynamic creators.
By this point in our Zoom call, dusk has engulfed Los Angeles, leaving King in the pitch black of her home. With no light around, she continues talking from a seat at her dining room table even as her body recedes into pixelated darkness, where the only things visible on my laptop screen are her gray-and-white Dodgers cap, her teeth and the bright white V-neck T-shirt she’s wearing, purchased from Target. Her eyes are imperceptible.
The scope of King’s performances since her first role at age 14—as Brenda Jenkins on the sitcom 227—has been wide ranging. Her first two Emmys came in 2015 and 2016 for roles in the ABC anthology American Crime. She picked up her third Emmy for the 2018 Netflix drama Seven Seconds, in which she played the mother of a son killed by a cop in a hit-and-run. She then won both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award in 2019, playing another maternal character in Barry Jenkins’s film adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk.
One Night in Miami plays out like elevated fan fiction with four historical figures: Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) before he called himself Muhammad Ali. The movie, though fictional, is based on a real gathering between the men on the night of February 25, 1964, when a 22-year-old Clay was victorious over Sonny Liston to snatch the heavyweight title.
After directing scenes for One Night in Miamiin New Orleans in January and February, King flew to Santa Fe to begin production on the Netflix western The Harder They Fall, in which she stars alongside Idris Elba and Zazie Beetz. Her plan was to fly from Santa Fe back to L.A. one weekend to complete the remaining two scenes of One Night in Miami. But then the coronavirus pandemic hit and triggered stay-at-home orders in March. The ensuing Black Lives Matter protests that intersected with Covid-19 outbreaks only stoked King’s desire to complete the film instead of delaying it.
“The work has truly been a welcome distraction. I find that…on set or editing, working on the music for the film [or] on the color, it forces you to focus on something else. Because everything around us has to do with the pandemic, who’s been in office, this election,” she says, two weeks before Election Day. “But as a Black American, that’s been the story before we were even born—of being marginalized people. That’s all the time happening, and the work kind of allows for me to escape it and not feel like I’m irresponsibly escaping it.”
In September, when King won her Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a limited series or movie for HBO’s Watchmen, she wore, under a fuchsia blazer, a T-shirt with the face of Breonna Taylor, the young Black woman who was shot and killed by Louisville police in March, along with the words “Say Her Name.” Like many Black Americans, King felt the fatigue of maintaining a professional visage amid violence. “The faces that we put on to smile and to succeed,” she says. “That shit is exhausting.”
King’s fourth Emmy was for her turn as the anti–white supremacist vigilante Angela Abar (aka Sister Night) in Watchmen, creator Damon Lindelof’s exploration of America’s original sin of racism, wrapped in a superhero story and set against the backdrop of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. After directing TV episodes over the years—first for Southlandand then shows like Scandal, Being Mary Janeand Insecure—King was searching for a love story to helm as her first feature and was drawn to a script her film literary agent brought her that centered around brotherly love and debate, set mostly in a hotel room. She presented her vision to producers and got the job directing One Night in Miami in 2019, about two weeks before winning her Oscar.
King describes the story as a personalized portrait of revered figures. “We meet them in places where they’re each getting punched in the gut and getting reminded of their blackness or inequities in some way,” she says. “I wanted the world to see Black men the way I see them, as complex, as vulnerable, as strong…as human beings that feel—who are not void of being hurt.”
Some directors have fallen over themselves trying to cater stories about Black people to white viewers, but King didn’t feel she needed to please everyone. She points to a pool scene of Cassius Clay that’s soundtracked to Donny Hathaway’s timeless cover of Ray Charles’s “I Believe to My Soul.” “I was like, ‘That’s for Black people! I’m letting y’all know now: I’m not changing that!’ ” she says, laughing. “There’s some things that are inside jokes that, because you’re not Black, you’re going to miss that joke. And in those moments, do you think, OK, does it matter to me if the joke is missed or that beat is missed? No, sometimes it doesn’t matter.”
King aimed to release One Night in Miamibefore Election Day, but a return to production in July necessitated testing a crew of around 60 people for Covid-19. With a preliminary acceptance to the Toronto International Film Festival and Venice Film Festival and two more scenes to shoot, she found herself in a time crunch when several test results, including her own, came back inconclusive, and they were forced to retest the sample. “I’m pulling up to the testing site [to do a second test], and they called and said, ‘The test came in and you’re negative.’ I literally started crying,” says King, who rushed home and immediately prepared to return to set.
The first Black female director to have a film screened at Venice, King found a distributor in Amazon for a limited theatrical release on Christmas Day and on Prime Video in January 2021. The film’s discussions of Black economic power, religious ideology and identity—there’s a scene in which Malcolm X accuses Sam Cooke of “perverting” his music for white listeners—parallel those happening today. “That was one of the things that made the story appealing to me—the fact that [almost] 60 years later, we’re still having these conversations,” King says. “Reading Kemp’s script, it was like a punch in the gut and a reminder of history and how much it’s been revised and how much it hasn’t changed and how much it’s changed in ways that aren’t substantial.”
Leslie Odom Jr., the movie’s Sam Cooke, sees King’s journey as one centered around endurance. “I think that you see in a Regina King career the history of the business and what has been historically possible for talented Black performers, talented Black female performers,” he says. “I say that because she’s kind of been tapping on the ceiling at every level. Every rung of the ladder that has been available to her, she’s maximized all of those rungs, and so now Hollywood is ready.”
Having followed her career and watched her in Southland, Lindelof cast her as the mother of a disappeared teenager in his prophetic HBO series The Leftovers and then in Watchmen, where alongside other actors like Jeremy Irons and her on-screen partner, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, King was the show’s fiery core. There’s one episode in which King leads a charming exchange with a mystery man inside a bar, and all of the tension unfolds in her eyes. “A big part of what makes her performances so authentic is I think Regina is surprising herself,” says Lindelof. “I think if you asked her right before you called ‘Action,’ ‘What are you going to do?’ she’d say, ‘I don’t know.’ ”
After reading only the pilot for Watchmen, she had, in Lindelof’s estimation, 800 questions about the role: What was the life of a Black woman like in Vietnam? Why did her character dress like a nun? Why did she have white children?
“By every estimation she has been a powerhouse for decades. So how do you ignore the powerhouse in the room?”
— Gabrielle Union
“Hollywood loves to tell the story of the overnight sensation and the ingenue…and because Regina has been acting since she was a kid, it’s depriving the system of this sense of discovery,” he says. “If Meryl Streep–level parts…were being written for Regina, she would have also won Oscars. Those parts just weren’t getting written for her, and now they are. I think there’s a whole level of filmmakers who understand that they’ve got a supernova of talent in Regina King, and in order to get her interested in your project, you’ve got to write a part that’s worthy of her.”
Born in Los Angeles, King was a child who took people at their word, even when she was 3 years old. “If a person was visiting and would say, ‘All right, I’m going to leave,’ I would go get their shit and bring it to the door,” she recalls her mother telling her. “I’m that person that’s always like, ‘Well, you said…. And it’s like, Well, they didn’t literally mean that, Regina.”
“He was there, but he wasn’t there. And I guess maybe it’s hard for me to say that,” says King. “I don’t even like the way it sounds when I say that. Because when I think of moments where he was there, he was truly there.” In an essay published in Essence in 2018, she remembered drive-in-movie nights with him, and the times he would comb her hair. He died in 2009 after battling Parkinson’s disease.
Around age 10, King landed her first audition—a McDonald’s
In filming five seasons of the family comedy 227, in which she played the daughter of a social couple with a chatty neighborhood crew, King found that life intersected with art in many ways. Her on-screen boyfriend, Curtis Baldwin, the actor who played Calvin, was also her first real-life boyfriend. Her on-screen dad, Hal Williams, was, meanwhile, a thoughtful surrogate in her formative years. “We all have an idea of what a [father-daughter] relationship is supposed to be like. And I’m not painting my father as a bad father. I’m not painting him as a great father, either,” she says. “But Hal definitely created a space for me to have those moments where a girl feels special in her father’s eyes. That’s something that I do remember. I remember the feeling.”
On a show with such iconic personalities as Jackée Harry (the first—and only—Black actor to win an Emmy for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series, for227), King was a young flash of lightning whose feathered bob inspired Black girls watching her. “I knew from when she was young [that] she had something different,” Harry says of King via email. “Hard to explain, but when you see it, you just know. In everything she does, she just gets better and better…. Because she grew up on set, she appreciated but also learned and respected all elements in front of and behind the camera.”
“Because she grew up on set, she appreciated but also learned and respected all elements in front of and behind the camera.”
— Jackée Harry
King was exposed to a new concept through 227 director Ellen Gittelsohn. “The first time we had a female director, that made my head almost spin. I didn’t even know that was even possible,” says King. “That was probably the first time that I realized, Wait, something ain’t right here. Why is Ellen the only one, [and] why did I not think that a woman could do it?”
After briefly studying communications at the University of Southern California near the end of 227’s run, King dropped out and got to work pitching herself as an actor who was more than just Brenda Jenkins. Just after King left USC, she took on piercing supporting roles in films primarily made and seen by Black people. She starred in a string of John Singleton–directed projects—Boyz N the Hood, Poetic Justice and Higher Learning—and did voice-acting as two brothers, one rebellious and the other more reasoned, in the animated satire The Boondocks, her most overlooked roles.