How does an animated film about a Black band teacher from 70’s Queens and a dramatic film that imagines conversations between four Black icons circa 1964, inform us about the Black American experience of today? And would you be surprised to learn that one man was instrumental in both films?
Kemp Powers is having an incredible year. The American writer, director and playwright worked as a journalist while toiling away on his first novel. He worked on Star Trek: Discovery as one writer among many. Now in 2020, we witness the one-two punch of his success. Kemp was co-director of Soul for Pixar (featuring the first African American lead character). Then he turned his award-winning play into a screenplay and it became the directorial debut for Regina King, One Night In Miami. Two brilliant works that celebrate the Black Male experience.
Soul is a charming animated film that attempts to make visual a unique experience–a struggling artist’s journey to fulfill his dream and his trip to the Great Before. As a Brooklyn writer, Kemp Powers created a character (originally envisioned as a white man by the writer/director Pete Docter) that feels rooted in a specific New York time and place. Joe Gardner feels fully-realized; a man known to his community in the barbershop, his Aunt’s tailor shop, and the middle-school where he teaches. Pixar Animation Studio has a reputation for sending it’s artists out to the community of the film’s setting, to soak in the details that make the images sing with realism. Now the studio has added a new development protocol; the culture trust. They gather a group of people who represent a particular culture, in this instance, African Americans, Jazz musicians, teachers…people they can trust to ensure they’re creating true representation on screen.
Intially hired to help polish the script for Soul, Kemp’s 12-week contract evolved into more than a year of five-day work weeks at Pixar Animation Studios. He was instrumental in casting, set design, editing, music and even marketing2. Similarly, when first time film director Regina King began production on One Night in Miami, she had him with her every step of the way. “…what I did do here that’s more like directing for TV than film is to have Kemp by my side throughout the process. Most of the time with movies, the writers are omitted, but I felt like it would be a disservice to not have him as part of the entire process. In my experiences in TV, the writer is very much involved, so I’ve seen the benefit of that.”1
When Kemp wrote his play, One Night in Miami, he was imagining what it would’ve been like to eavesdrop on an actual event. After a boxing match in Miami in Feb of 1964, Cassius Clay was celebrating his win with Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown. One month later, the Soul crooner, Sam Cooke was shot under mysterious circumstanses in his hotel room. Cassius Clay was now Muhammed Ali but after being jailed for his protests of the Vietnam War, his boxing career was finished. Jim Brown left football behind to star in action films. A year later, Malcolm X was assassinated by rival Black Muslims. The play, and the film, present an opportunity to see these legends interact in a crucial time in their lives and careers.
Regina King has cast actors that have great chemistry together. Though the film retains some of the “stagey-ness” of the play, the actors get to move outside the main setting. There are opportunities for the men to share moments in public and private in intimate conversations that show us how much they care and respect each other. Each character shows their human side: flawed, angry or afraid, argumentative or boastful. What unites them is their willingness to support each other and grow as human beings. They listen to each other. Kemp has written these men as not just the icons of their time but also as men learning from each other.
“These four men, the reasons they’re icons is that they represent very specific ideas about Blackness, about manhood, about self-reliance,” explains One Night in Miami writer Kemp Powers. “The ideas they represent, the ideas can have the debate and use that to have this discussion, that has been had long before that night, this discussion that goes back to W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington,” he declares. “It’s a discussion we’re still having today. And it’s what’s the best way forward for Black people in this country?” from a video interview for News Break
Kemp is creating men who aren’t perfect but are striving to be inspirations for others. Joe Gardner, the middle-school band leader in Soul, is a man on journey. Rushing toward his destiny taken from him by cruel fate, he’s still willing to educate a stubborn “22” about why life is worth living. One film is animated and one is a fantasy, but they both speak to our modern lives. The business of life isn’t always simple. We should strive for the celebration of beauty and continue the struggle for civil rights. Embrace the joy of using your talents and recognize the gifts of others. Let’s all give thanks that Kemp Power persisted in his vision and his artistry and now we can look forward to more fully-realized portrayals of the Black male experience.
“Kemp’s words were a love letter to the Black man’s experience. As an audience member, I feel like I don’t often get the opportunity to see our men realized onscreen the way we see them in real life.” Regina King,1 Salamishah Tillet, Jan 15, 2021, NYTIMES
“At the center of Soul and Miami are men reborn once they stop hiding parts of themselves from the world”2 Jenna Marotta, Dec 3, 2020, “2 Major Movies and a Life Shadowed by Pain and Perfectionism“, NYTIMES
Drinks With Films Rating
Soul — ☕️☕️☕️☕️ ghostly cups of coffee that can’t be tasted in the Great Before (out of 5)
One Night in Miami — four surreptitious sips from a hidden flask (out of 5)