Having no film credits just three years ago, today Kemp Powers is the co-director and writer of two large-scale upcoming films: Soul and One Night in Miami. Speaking with the New York Times’ Jenna Marotta in an exclusive interview, Powers shared the special journey of working on both films, along with how they were a mirror to his own life.
The story behind the animated film Soul, written by Mike Jones and co-directed by Oscar-winner Pete Docter (Up and Inside Out) received a powerful transformation with the help of Powers. The main character Joe was initially written as a white actor, an incredibly prevalent choice within Pixar Studio animations. Three years into the creation of Soul, Joe, voiced by Jamie Foxx, was now a Black jazz pianist who discovered the true meaning of what it means to live from the soul. But with Jones and Docter both being white, they required assistance for this history-making film, and Powers seized the opportunity when approached. Joe is the first Black protagonist in Pixar’s three decades of film creation, and there was a need for it to be genuine, exceptional, and moving.
The 12-week Soul contract was extended for over a year, with Powers spending five days a week at Pixar. Although hired to simply enhance the script, his creative opinion was thoroughly trusted. Soon, he was turned to for input on casting, editing, music, marketing and set design.
Docter explained how he wanted the narrative of Soul to emphasize that dreadful and all-too-common feeling of being “stuck” in an unsatisfying career, living with the heavy regret of not following one’s true passion. Powers could relate to this within his own life, being unfulfilled in certain journalism positions before following his heart’s calling of becoming a playwright and filmmaker. There’s even a scene in the film that pays homage to his childhood dream of being a firefighter.
Amazon Studios’ One Night in Miami is written by Powers and is Regina King’s directorial debut. It follows a hypothetical situation of what would occur if Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Cassius Clay, and Jim Brown found themselves together, discussing the responsibility of being successful Black men during the Civil Rights movement. It’s a robust example of how his observations as a multifaceted Black man fuels the stories that Powers wishes to tell in his art.
In conversation with Marotta, King discussed the timeless significance of One Night in Miami. In cinema, she said, “We don’t get the opportunity to see our men, Black men, shown the way we see them so often in our family members and friends. Like every other human being, they’re layered. They are vulnerable, they are strong, they are providers, they are sometimes putting on a mask. They are not unbreakable. They are flawed. They are beautiful. And just Kemp captured all of that in, you know, less than 110 pages. I told him that I felt like you’ve written a love letter to Black men.”
“At the center of “Soul” and “Miami” are men reborn once they stop hiding parts of themselves from the world,” writes Marotta. “During his 17-year media career, Powers distanced himself from his harrowing past by telling other people’s stories. Then he distanced himself from colleagues ridiculing the creative writing that occupied his nights and weekends. To find his voice, Powers had to cover his ears.” It’s a sentiment that many of us can relate to. But to lose yourself in others’ expectations or judgments is to betray your own soul. Finally choosing to live by his own truth led Powers to his creative destiny at 47 years old. Let this serve as motivation for anyone with a dream, regardless of age.
Soul and One Night in Miami will both be released on December 25th. Stream Soul through Disney+, and watch One Night in Miami in select theaters and through Amazon beginning in January.
Read the full editorial on The New York Times.