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With ‘Soul’ and ‘One Night in Miami,’ Kemp Powers finally hits his artistic stride

Kemp Powers co-wrote and co-directed the animated "Soul" and adapted his own stage play for the film "One Night in Miami."
Kemp Powers co-wrote and co-directed the Pixar movie “Soul” as well as adapted his own stage play for the film “One Night in Miami.”
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Kemp Powers is having the sort of year that fledgling screenwriters dream about. After two decades as a journalist, and a few more years as a playwright, Powers has seen his first two screenplays turn into two of the year’s most celebrated films: Regina King’s directorial debut “One Night in Miami,” and Pixar Animation’s existential comedy “Soul.”

Speaking via Zoom from his home in Los Angeles, Powers acknowledges that he’s living an unlikely success story. “I just turned 47,” he says. “My playwriting career began at 40, and my screenwriting career began at 46, which is way past the date at which you’re supposed to give up.”

For years, Powers had written creatively on nights and weekends while devoting himself to his journalism career. But several years ago, after yet another media layoff, he decided to make a bet on himself. With his severance package and some stock options in hand, he decided to “finally take a leap of faith and say that I’ve got a two-year window to make this dream of mine come to fruition.”

“Almost like a stroke of luck, just when my journalism career was beginning to contract, that thing I’ve been doing as a hobby for so many years was starting to get attention. ‘One Night in Miami’ was actually my first play, produced at an Equity-waiver theater on Pico Boulevard across from Roscoe’s. There was no expectation of it turning into anything else. To be perfectly honest, even my playwriting career caught me a little off guard.”

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“Miami” dramatizes a real-life 1964 encounter between four young Black luminaries — Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke — in a Florida hotel room. The drama finds the men navigating a historical crossroads, caught in a high-stakes debate about power, race and social responsibility.

“I had actually been researching the friendship between those four men for years, with the intention of writing a book,” Powers says. When he started taking playwriting more seriously, “Miami” was the first full-length idea that came to mind, because “I’d done so much research on each of the four men that I almost felt like I had their voices in my head.”

Later, he developed “Miami” into his first film script, and it caught the attention of Oscar-winning actress Regina King, who came on as a first-time director.
The film, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival, has been acclaimed as a vivid and timely reflection on Black masculinity and racial injustice.

Powers was drawn to historical figures who were “unapologetically Black,” and he sees a parallel between the film’s Cassius Clay and such outspoken contemporary icons as Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James.

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But he says he conceived of “Miami” as historical fiction and admits to finding the film’s contemporary resonance “a little bit depressing.... It was never meant to be written for today. It was meant to be a characterization of these guys to inspire young people, to understand that these movements are youth movements.” Powers adds that “what I look forward to is when it’s a time capsule.”

At the very least, Powers’ other new film is a demonstration of his creative range. If “One Night in Miami” is an intimate, intense chamber drama, Pixar’s “Soul” is a dizzying animated fantasy that moves effortlessly between different dimensions.

It’s also the first Pixar movie to feature a Black protagonist. After deciding to make the lead character, Joe Gardner, a New York-based jazz musician, director and Pixar veteran Pete Docter tapped Powers to come onboard as a screenwriter.

“When they brought me on,” Powers says, “[‘Soul’] was still early in its development. And it was a film about a middle-aged Black man from New York who finally got his artistic break in his mid-40s. Hello!”

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Given how much Powers related to the character, he poured his personal experiences into the “Soul” script. “The conversations between Joe Gardner and his mother are variations on conversations I’ve had with my own mother. It’s not autobiographical ... but [also] it kind of is.”

By the time Powers was done writing the script, he had put so much of himself into the film that Docter made him co-director. “From the very beginning,” Powers says, “they wrapped me into a lot more of the process than just the screenwriting.”

“I’m a good learner by osmosis,” Powers says. “It was like ‘The Karate Kid’ for me, where I was painting the fence and waxing the cars and then, a year in, [Docter is] like, ‘Oh, I want you to be co-director.’ And I asked him, ‘Well, what does that mean?’ And he’s like, ‘You’ve already been doing it.’”

Pixar’s creative process, which involves a Braintrust committee that provides regular creative input on the storytelling, might overwhelm a first-time writer-director, but Powers took it in stride.

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“I understand the mystique of the Braintrust,” Powers says, “but ultimately it’s just a group of very talented peers trying to help you make your film better. Now, look, when you have a bad screening, three hours of notes tearing your film apart is not fun. But it keeps you having a critical eye on your work as you’re making it.

He adds: “In the Olympics, there’s marathon runners, and there’s sprinters. Making a Pixar film is like sprinting — the distance of America.”


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