Article taken from W Magazine.

Anywhere, U.S.A. Thats where this family of three finds itself, in the backyard of a modest American home. It could be Los Angeles, Detroit, or New York. You can almost hear the sounds of DeBarge or Maze featuring Frankie Beverlythe quintessential track list for any Black familys reunion, cookout, or lazy weekend afternoon. The fact that the star of these photos is the Oscar, Emmy, and Golden Globewinning actressViola Davisalmost doesnt register. Instead, we see a classical portrait of Black American life.

That was director Regina Kings intention when she orchestrated, with the photographer Andre D. Wagner, the images you see here. King began crafting the story months ago by watching old interviews of her friend Davis, in which she could hear the pain as well as the beauty in the bruises in her delivery. With her timeless appeal, Davis embodies Kings idea of what she terms Black Americana. I dont think any of us are particularly happy with the state of America, but we still embrace the fact that we are Black Americans, even with all of the things that have happened in history, King told me.

King started out playing a rebellious teen on the 1980s sitcom227, snagged supporting roles in early-90s John Singleton films such asBoyz n the HoodandPoetic Justice, and returned to television in the aughts inThe BoondocksandSouthland. Along the way, she picked up numerous acting awards: four Emmys (two forAmerican Crime, and one each forSeven SecondsandWatchmen), a Golden Globe, and an Oscar (both forIf Beale Street Could Talk). In the past decade, her work as a director, initially on episodes ofScandalandInsecure, opened up new avenues for her as a storyteller who edges all of us closer to a clearer understanding of what its like to be Black in America.

Her feature directorial debut,One Night in Miami, based on Kemp Powerss play of the same name, is a fictionalized account of the real night in February 1964 that civil rights leader Malcolm X, championship heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay), NFL fullback Jim Brown, and soul musician Sam Cooke spent together. In Kings take, just months before both Malcolm X and Cooke would be killed, the men discuss the topics of colorism and economic freedom for Black Americans, disagree on the ways their unique, individual talents should intersect with their social responsibility as public figures, and wrangle with Malcolm X and Alis tricky relationship with the Nation of Islam. King cant pinpoint the exact moment she realized she was a director, but said that in some ways she felt like she had prepared for this moment in her career throughout her entire life. As an actor, I was paying attention and not really knowing why I was paying attentionwhy I would stay behind, why I would be on set when it wasnt even my scene, she said. I didnt really know why then, but I know now.

The location for theWshoot was the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles, which was a hot spot of sorts for Black celebrities like Little Richard and Hattie McDaniel in the 1940s and 50s. Looking both chic and practical in a utilitarian black jumpsuit and head wrap, paired with black Gucci ankle boots embossed with crystals, King was joined by Davis, the undisputed star of last yearsMa Raineys Black Bottom, as well as Daviss husband, Julius Tennon, an actor and a producer, and their 10-year-old daughter, Genesis. Years ago, King met Davis at Alfre Woodards annual Oscars Sistahs Soire, which celebrates women of color in Hollywood. At that event, Davis explained, after cocktails and dinner, The media leaves, and then we just let loose; shoes come off, and makeup is wiped off. Thats when their friendship began. The two would run into each other here and there during awards season, and with Tennon often appearing alongside Davis at various Hollywood events, King got to know him better too. I loved that Julius always seemed to be very protective of Viola, but not in a way that looked problematic, King told me. He really feels like a partner.

As production assistants and hair and makeup crews buzzed aroundmaintaining appropriate Covid protocolsKing sat at a table across from Genesis, who is a typical fifth-grader, obsessed with Billie Eilish and TikTok. But, as it turned out, she is a huge fan of Kings, as well. Im talking to a legend right now, Genesis said excitedly. Well, your mom is a legend, the director replied. What would you like me to call you? Genesis politely asked, adding that her mom might want me to call you Ms. King. The director said that calling her by her first name was fine, or you can call me whatever your mom wants you to call me. By the end of this, youll be calling me Auntie Regina!

King explained to Genesis the gist of the shoots narrative: A family enjoys a Saturday afternoon at home, Mom and Dad go out on the town that night, the following morning they all head to church, and once theyre back home, Mom receives a horrible phone call. In preparation, King, Davis, and Ruth E. Carter, the Oscar-winning costume designer who styled the shoot, studied photographs by the artist Carrie Mae Weems, who is known for her subtle documentation of Black domestic life. Im not really interested in being a part of something if it doesnt feel collaborative, whether it is as a director, an actor, or a producer, King said. By not wanting to include other peoples ideas, you could end up with something really unimaginative. King homed in on Weemss work especially for the scene in which Davis receives the bad news. Carter, meanwhile, turned to the late Cicely Tyson for stylistic inspiration, choosing outfits in rich fabrics that visually registered their softness on film. Youre looking for the feeling of it, Carter said of how she used each piece to reinforce Kings narrative. Thats what connects you to the characters, who they are.

Outside the house, the family ad-libbed and snapped greens into a large bowl. Davis and Tennon joked about tossing some bones into the broth and saving the pot liquor, and conjured up an imaginary guest list for their meal. Then they all danced in the backyard. According to Genesis, this was not far from the general daily vibe in the real Tennon-Davis household. Music is always playing, she whispered to me, while her parents posed for another shot in the backyard.

As the family sat together for a scene of consolation following Daviss wrenching phone call, the upbeat playlist transitioned to Nina Simones I Shall Be Released, a song that took on special significance for King as she was preparing to directOne Night in MiamiIts sad, but we still have this thing about us as Black people that, while we have the burden, we believe in giving it to God, and that our spirits are or will eventually be freed, King said. You feel the weight of the world, but youre hearing Ninas voice and what shes saying, and somehow you believe its going to be okay.

Davis later told me that Kings insistence on capturing Black life in its totality was what drew her to participate in this project. Theres a life beyond the tragedy, theres life even within the tragedy, and there was a life before the tragedy, she said. That you can be experiencing moments of joy when tragedy comes in and invades your life, and then it melts into something elsewe understand that about life in general, but not always with Black folks in it. This is the first time Ive ever done a photo shoot like this.

That wasnt the only way in which working with King was atypical for Davis. For all the progress thats been made, racial stereotypes are still very much alive in Hollywood. It becomes about reinterpreting who we are to either look better than what we are, more noble, more aesthetically beautiful in a sort of assimilationist realm, or its another version of Blackness that is downtrodden, Davis lamented. When she starred inHow to Get Away With Murder, for instance, studio executives scoffed at the idea that she could be considered sexy enough to have an attractive husband on the show. I feel like there is still a filter that we have to go through, and by the time you see us on-screen, weve become almost a Mr. Potato Head of who we actually are, she continued. Youve got to snip out this part for white people because itll become an indictment. And then whats left is a huge lie. An apologetic lie.

Whether shes working on a big-scale project likeOne Night in Miamior a more intimate one, like this one with her friend Davis, King makes a point of tackling the space between art and social responsibility in a deeply personal way. She is someone who, as Davis said, seeks to give you life straight, no chaser. Her ultimate goal is to capture a spectrum of emotions without shying away from the more unpleasant facets of lifeBlack life in particularin order to reveal the truth. In anyones work, were all products of our environment, King said after the shoot. Sometimes people ask, Is there a difference in your perspective because youre a woman?And I say, Yes, but the difference is because its Regina. The way Regina would tell the story is different from the way another Black female director would tell the story. The experiences that made us who we are, are all being used in the storytelling.

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