Kemp Powers is having a very good few months. He scripted two acclaimed movies, “One Night in Miami” and “Soul,” and could soon become one of the rare screenwriters nominated for multiple Oscars in the same year. Both films are somewhat unusual. “Soul,” an existential adventure about a jazz musician prematurely sent to the afterlife, features Pixar’s first Black protagonist, while “One Night in Miami” demystifies clichés about its legendary subjects: Malcolm X, Cassius Clay (before he became Muhammad Ali), Sam Cooke and NFL superstar Jim Brown.
“Miami” began as a play, dramatizing an evening in 1964 when the four men gathered at a Florida hotel to celebrate Clay’s victory over heavyweight boxing champ Sonny Liston. In Powers’ hands, their congress turns into a spirited philosophical discussion about fame, civil rights and what it means to be a Black celebrity in America. After “Miami” opened on the Los Angeles stage and moved to London, Powers wrote the big-screen adaptation that would become Regina King’s feature-length directorial debut. (It’s available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.)
Powers’ involvement with “Soul” was a bit more circuitous. Longtime Pixar maestro Pete Docter (“Inside Out”) asked him to give feedback on some rough footage of the film, wanting a Black perspective on the main character’s experiences. Before Powers knew it, he signed on as both a co-writer and co-director despite not having any movie credits to his name. Now, the 47-year-old former journalist has rebooted his career. (”Soul” is available on Disney+.)
I talked to Powers about the topical resonance of “One Night in Miami,” what Malcolm X would make of current events and how Powers feels about a specific aspect of “Soul” that’s met criticism.
“One Night in Miami” was first performed onstage in 2013, and the movie was shot in 2020. A lot happened in between. Was there anything about the play, specifically its ideas about what it means to be a Black public figure, that changed as a result?
I don’t think really anything. The theme of the film and the theme of the play are pretty much the same. The changes that I made to the film are more about executing it in a different format.
It’s such a cliché to say: The more things change, the more they stay the same. But the issues that sparked the conversations that I wrote the play around are still the issues we’re having today. It’s been fascinating hearing people say how the film is so timely or feels reactionary to what we’re going through right now because, again, it’s based on a play that came out in 2013, when it was said to be reflective of what was happening in 2013. That’s when the Trayvon Martin trial happened and George Zimmerman got acquitted. After our production in Baltimore, the Freddie Gray incident happened. The 1960s were a crucible moment in our country’s history, and this past five or six years have very obviously been another one of those crucible moments in our country’s history. It feels like we’re in the midst of extreme change.
A few other awards-season movies depict the same era and similar ideas: “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” in particular. Do you feel like “One Night in Miami” is in conversation with those movies?
I got to say, I love the fact that so many different stories from that era are being told because it wasn’t that long ago when it was like, “OK, there could only be one story to even touch on a certain theme or a certain topic.” This year, to me, feels like a bumper crop of films that feature and center Black characters and deal with issues of race and the Black experience in a way that even four or five years ago would have felt impossible. Maybe it could be a reaction to the political climate of the past four years. Whenever that pendulum swings hard to the right, artists are kind of in the crosshairs, and we develop a certain “oh well, fuck it” attitude, and some put out our best work.
I grew up in New York City in the ’80s. And the ’70s and ’80s, when New York was bankrupt, were also, you could argue, when New York was flourishing artistically. Everything from Andy Warhol to Basquiat. Usually, great art comes out of adversity. That’s my only possible explanation for why so many films covering that era are just suddenly popping up. Movies take years to get made, to get the financing. And it’s not just things that are specifically set in the ’60s. You see things like Chloé Zhao’s film, “Nomadland.” There’s all different ways that people are reacting to these unusual times.
Having done so much research about these four men, do you find yourself pondering what they would make of everything that has happened in the past four years, particularly Malcolm X and the racial justice protests of 2020?
I feel like Malcolm X was such a prescient thinker that, of all of them, he would definitely be the one who would most be like, “I told you so.” There’s two people who I feel could have really predicted everything: Malcolm X and James Baldwin. The things that both of those men spoke about, we just experienced it. You watch historical footage of them talking and you go, “Why wouldn’t we all listen?”
I actually remember the first time I heard a great debate between Baldwin and Malcolm X, which I’m sure you can get online. Back when I first heard it, you had to order a special disc. But it was wonderful hearing these two guys who represent very opposite ideas having a pretty excitable debate on the radio. And then the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” lays out, as much as they disagreed on that debate stage, how much respect Baldwin had for Malcolm X. And that really speaks to this idea of being able to disagree but also be respectful of one another and still be friends and still have love because you’re moving towards a common goal. So, I think that Malcolm would have been the most prescient. Of course, Jim Brown is still with us.
Again, I was writing about these guys at a moment in time, and that’s also the key thing to understand here. It’s one night in 1964, although the film covers more than just that one night. And it’s also when they were young men. On this night, Cassius Clay’s 22. Jim Brown is 28. Sam and Malcolm are in their 30s. When the play first got produced, I was already older than all the men in that room on that night, which, if anything, made me look at myself and go, “God, you’re lazy. Get off your ass and do some more interesting things.” Because these guys were kids and were already achieving things.
There are a few elements of this movie that are particularly fascinating. First, you’ve got four celebrities in a room together; who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the wall? But you bring out aspects of them that we don’t always see in cultural depictions. I’m particularly thinking of the loneliness and anxiety that Malcolm X shows. We’re so used to seeing him as this hyper-confident, beguiling speechifier. For you, where did that come from?
It came from just personal experience and everything I’ve observed. When people talk about representation and seeing themselves onscreen, to a certain extent, it’s like you want to see positive images. You want to see us be heroes. You want to see the Black guy make it to the end of the horror movie. Those were the things we wanted just in the times when we couldn’t even get that.
But for me, representation is also seeing us as complete human beings. One of the negatives about the deification of certain people is that, in a certain way, they become not human. One of the keys to our humanity, I think, is empathy and vulnerability, and I think that when it comes to the portrayal of Black characters onscreen, people are afraid to show vulnerability.
At times, I feel weak and vulnerable and I’m second-guessing myself. And those shouldn’t just be things that you see in Fredo [from “The Godfather”]. That’s why a film like “Moonlight” resonated so powerfully for me. Barry Jenkins was showing a deep kind of humanity that I hadn’t had a lot of opportunities to get a taste of. All I’m trying to do is just show a little bit more of these men . They’re unquestionably powerful men who deserve to be revered as the icons that they are, but just show them being a little more human, especially as it pertains to our athletes, who we tend to dehumanize more than any other group in American culture.
I want to ask you about an aspect of “Soul” that’s been criticized. A number of people feel conflicted about the Black protagonist spending so much of the movie being voiced by Tina Fey, a white woman. Of course, the details are more nuanced than that, but did it dawn on you as a potential problem when you were working on the movie?
All you can do is put the work out there and people are going to receive it the way they want to receive it. The overwhelming reaction I’ve seen to “Soul” has been positive. If someone has a beef with Tina Fey, the actress, voicing a character that’s supposed to be non-gendered and non-race, literally an unborn soul who hasn’t been born yet, then it sounds like it’s an issue that they have with how they perceive Tina Fey the human being. I don’t know. I mean, in the process of trying to tell this very human story that’s being told through the prism of a Black man’s experiences, no, I can’t say that that was something that we were thinking about.
I think I’ve seen a few things about it, and it seems to be referring to some episodes of “30 Rock.” All that stuff had happened after we finished making the movie. A certain amount of that feels like it’s retroactively persecuting a person’s entire career. So, people have to have their opinion. That’s not how I feel about it. Like I said, the character is supposed to be non-racial and non-gendered, so then I guess if that’s the case, then for the person making that criticism, if the character were voiced by a Black character, then it would be fine. Is that what they’re saying? Or what if the character were voiced by an Asian character? Would it be a problem?
Just to be clear, the problem is not with Tina Fey, per se. You’re right that there have been criticisms of “30 Rock.” Some of her comedy has been called into question, and maybe that is influencing some of the reactions. But I think the people who have criticized that element are concerned more about the body-swap aspect of the story. This is Pixar’s first Black protagonist and so much of the movie finds him being voiced by — whether it’s intended this way or not — what is coded as a white female.
Sure. Gotcha. But as soon as the first trailer came out, there was criticism about the main character being in a soul form in a movie called “Soul” about a man who gets separated from his body in the first 10 minutes of the movie. So, again, that’s the story that we were always trying to tell. It was always supposed to be a story about a guy who dies in the beginning and his soul is trying to get back to his body. If that’s the criticism you want, I guess the only way to be happy is if you never tell that story with a Black character because part of him learning to appreciate his own life is going back down to Earth and seeing it from a different perspective.
I don’t know all the details of the criticism, but if it’s rubbed people the wrong way, that’s unfortunate because that wasn’t anyone’s intent. But you put art out into the world and it’s fair game. All I can say is that’s too bad.
Right. I think people generally love the movie but have dug into that one aspect of it. We were talking about representation a minute ago, and I think that’s some of what it comes down to.
Sure. People have dug into aspects of “One Night in Miami” as well. I don’t expect to ever do anything and not have there be people criticize it, no matter what it is. But I know what my intent is. I know what my goal is as a filmmaker, as a writer, as a director. As long as I know my intent is pure and I feel like I get to tell the story that I want to tell, then I really can’t have any control over anything else. And maybe the criticism speaks to greater issues in the industry, and ultimately these discussions can only be a healthy thing. There’s certain people who are going to be very skeptical and suspicious — and it’s rightfully so — because animation has not had a history of being particularly kind to Black characters.
That’s very true. “Song of the South” still haunts the genre.
I’m not going to begrudge anyone being suspicious, because animation hasn’t earned the right to not have people — Black people particularly — be suspicious of it. Even if you look at how much of a sample group we have, there’s not much to sample from. This is the first one for Pixar. It’s probably, what, the second one across all Disney animated features? When there’s so little of us, people are going to be suspicious.
We had a great conversation with our Black cultural trust. It was everyone — educators, people from the NAACP — and we all kind of sat around and we had just finished watching the movie and we were doing our notes. And at the end of the note session, I forgot which person said it, but he said something I thought was really awesome, which was like, “We always say that Black people are not a monolith, but then we do things like create these groups and assume that that’s going to cover all your bases when it comes to Black people. The thing you got to understand is, ‘Are you happy with the film?’ We’re happy with the film. There’s going to be someone who’s unhappy with something, and there’s no way you’ll ever be able to predict what that thing is that they’re unhappy with because we’re not a monolith.” And I’m a believer in that.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.