Regina King has a knack for finding and telling stories that advance the national conversation on race. She is careful and humble in this interview, so she won’t tell you outright she does this. But it’s true.
From her Oscar-winning role in 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk to her work as the ass-kicking Angela Abar in HBO’s Watchmen, King’s characters push viewers to reconsider what it means to live Black in America. It’s a careful balance — blending entertainment and history — yet she maintains it to great effect.
“I think Watchmen is, if not the blackest show, one of the blackest [shows] on TV,” explains King, referencing the opening scene in episode one, which depicted the 100 percent true massacre of Black Wall Street by White people in Tulsa, Okla. The racist bombing of this wealthy Black neighborhood was an incident integral to the storyline of King’s character and also an incident integral to the storyline of America.
“Anyone that has followed my career knows that I love my blackness. And I love differences in people. That’s what I love about the human race, that we are not all alike, but at the core we are all a spirit and all breath ... all of these different things that brought us to where each individual is. That’s what this moment is about.”
This “moment” came after her sci-fi show sparked yet another national conversation about race massacres, launched a year before the 100th anniversary — in 2021 — of the deadly Tulsa event.
King could have shied away from a script that dropped the bomb on the public in this way. You never know how the audience might have responded. It could have gone bad, but again, King knows how to pick ‘em. And it was good. Quite good. The HBO phenomenon, based on a comic series of the same name, became the talk of social media with that massacre storyline appalling everyone from White millennials to newbie Black historians. At the same time, the entertainment elements kept audiences returning week after week — especially to see King beating bad guys down whilst wearing a black cape. Who doesn’t love a Black superhero? Especially one who is a woman?
Fighting for what’s right and lending support to those who need it is a common theme of King’s craft and of her life. Even in her 2019 Oscar speech she alluded to the tremendous support needed to bring the work of James Baldwin to the silver screen, along with the support offered to her throughout her career. She thanked her mom and she thanked God.
Only a handful of us knew, at that time, that she was filming Watchmen not even a week before the Oscars aired. After taking home that golden statue she went straight back to work.
Though she is mum about a second season of Watchmen, she is eager to discuss her next directorial project, which brings Kemp Powers’ 2013 play One Night in Miami to the big screen. It’s an adaptation of the fictional account of the night of Feb. 25, 1964, when the Cassius Clay/Sonny Liston fight occurred. The script reimagines the conversations that occurred that evening between Sam Cook, Jim Brown and Clay.
As King describes it, “It’s a reimagining of what those men, soon to be icons, were sharing of what it means to be a Black man in America.”
The work of Alabama attorney Bryan A. Stevenson, who has represented — and saved — Black men on death row, is particularly inspiring to King. Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative tackles the disparity in the criminal justice system. King met Stevenson while in Montgomery, Ala., filming an episode of Who Do You Think You Are?
“He’s just so passionate about what he’s doing,” King says of Stevenson. “He’s graceful and powerful at the same time with his words and his actions. And that’s just something that not a lot of people have.”
King is equally concerned about climate change and more traditional social justice issues. For her, she explains, they are inseparable issues.
“Can one truly just focus on one thing that needs our attention as a human race?” she asks rhetorically. “We’re experiencing an American problem — it’s not just our problem. Social injustice trickles over into things like climate change. In 10 years, if we don’t make drastic changes, we’re not going to have spaces for [our children] to live healthy, to breathe, and that’s terrifying.”
— Adrienne Samuels Gibbs