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How LAist Alumnus Kemp Powers Wrote Two Of 2020's Best Movies -- 'Soul' And 'One Night In Miami'

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Kemp Powers, the writer and co-director of "Soul" and the writer of "One Night In Miami." Both movies came out Christmas Day in 2020 and are major awards season contenders. (Damu Malik)
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Did anybody have a better year than Kemp Powers? Sure, the bar wasn't high for 2020 but he has, by any measure, had a knock-it-out-of-the-park, go-buy-a-lottery-ticket-right-now run these last 12 months.

Powers wrote and co-directed the latest Pixar film, Soul, the story of a middle school music teacher who refuses to go to the Great Beyond without a fight. Powers also wrote the screenplay for One Night In Miami, a movie about the night Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown hung out in a motel room. (The meetup was real. What they said and did is a matter of conjecture.)

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Kingsley Ben-Adir (MalcolmX), Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown), Eli Goree (Muhammad Ali) and Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam Cooke) star in "One Night In Miami." (Patti Perret/Amazon Studios)
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Both films debuted on Christmas Day. Both are being tapped as major awards season contenders. For a Hollywood veteran, this would be a once-in-a-lifetime hat trick. For a newbie, it's unprecedented. For Powers, let's hope it happens again. He's an immensely talented, hardworking and down-to-earth human -- and he used to write for LAist. What can we say? We know talent when we see it.

Approximately 15 years ago, Powers was a Los Angeles journalist writing stories about sumo wrestling, Baldwin Hills, cheesesteaks and transportation planning. One night, he found himself reading a book about the intersection of pro sports and the civil rights movement. It contained the briefest of references to the night in 1964 when Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, defeated heavyweight champ Sonny Liston.

After the fight, Ali returned to his motel, one of only a handful in Miami that accepted black patrons, and spent the night eating vanilla ice cream while conversing with his three famous friends. The next day, he announced his membership in the Nation of Islam.

The story lodged itself in Powers' brain and after getting laid off from his gig as a news editor at Yahoo, he took a leap of faith and decided to turn it into a play. His fictional account of that evening, One Night in Miami, debuted in 2013 at Rogue Machine Theatre.

"Discovering that moment was just like dynamite going off in your brain," Powers recently told A Martinez on KPCC's Take Two.

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Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir and Aldis Hodge star in "One Night In Miami." (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

He describes their meeting as "a crucible moment" for the four men. Cassius Clay would soon become Muhammad Ali. Sam Cooke, who had recently recorded "A Change Is Gonna Come," would be dead a few months later. Within a year, Jim Brown would abruptly retire from the NFL while filming The Dirty Dozen. And Malcolm X, who would soon break away from the Nation of Islam, was assasinated days before the one-year anniversary of this evening.

"It seemed like perfect grist for a drama," Powers says.

He points out that on this night, Ali, at 22 years old, was the baby of the group. Powers used that in the structure of his play, framing Ali as "the kid brother who's about to make one of the most important decisions of his life, and his three big brothers fighting over the destiny of their kid brother."

The play did well with audiences and critics, winning three L.A. Drama Critics Circle Awards before travelling to various regional theaters then heading to New York and London.

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While One Night In Miami spent years touring the United States, Powers turned down several offers to option the play and turn it into a film. As he moved into film and TV writing, he developed a new set of skills. Powers says that helped him envision "how I would tell this story as a film, which is actually quite different than how I would tell it as a play. Once I could see how I would do that, I became a lot more open to the idea of adapting it."

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Director Regina King works with actor Eli Goree, playing Muhammad Ali, on the set of "One Night In Miami." (Patti Perret/Amazon Studios)

After Powers wrote the screenplay, he and his reps began looking for a director, preferably someone in the early stages of their directing career. Regina King was one of the first people to get her hands on the script. Although One Night In Miami would be her first feature directing credit, she had done a fair bit of TV directing and had tons of experience as an actor.

"I think we were lucky to have a director who was not only gifted technically but has an incredible touch when it comes to working with individual actors," Powers says.

What does he hope the movie contributes to the collective understanding of Black history in the U.S.?

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"What I really hope... is that young people see and understand that the people that they deify, their heroes, were actually young people just like them. They were human beings. They were young men who actually didn't know what they were doing -- were scared, experienced doubt -- and they did it anyway," Powers says.

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In Disney and Pixar's "Soul," Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a middle-school band teacher whose true passion is playing jazz. On the eve of his big break, a single unexpected step sends him to a cosmic realm where he's forced to think about what it truly means to have soul. (Courtesy of Pixar)

If One Night In Miami is all about supremely talented men struggling with ordinary doubts and fears, Soul follows a talented average Joe who's missing the beauty of his day-to-day life in his search for greatness.

Powers joined the project after Pete Docter, head of Pixar, read the play version of One Night in Miami. At that point, the studio had spent approximately two years developing the movie.

"The rough structure of the film was there but it wasn't really a film yet," Powers says. "They showed me 2D storyboards. They knew that the main character was going to be a jazz musician named Joe Gardner who dies in the beginning but there wasn't a lot of detail."

The story needed a third act. Powers initially came on board as a writer but his contributions ended up going way beyond those duties so he became the film's co-director, with Docter. "Pete asked for my contributions for everything from the casting, to the character design, to the edit, to the set design," he says.

The experience was a dream come true for Powers, who says he owned almost every Pixar movie before coming to work for the studio.

"It was an incredible opportunity because any time you see a Pixar film, you are seeing the collective work of 350 people," he says. "At the same time, I was able to [use] so much of my personal life to inform the telling of this story. It's a story about the meaning of life and our purpose. You can't have a more universal theme than that. But it was an opportunity to go on that journey through the prism of a Black man -- a Black man who, coincidentally, had a lot in common with me."

But Powers emphasizes that he wasn't the only person who brought soul to Soul. "I'm not every Black man or Black person in America. It's not just my stamp," he says.

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In Disney and Pixar's "Soul," Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a middle-school band teacher whose true passion is playing jazz. When he gets lost in his music, he goes into "the zone," and the rest of the world melts away. (Courtesy of Pixar)

Jon Batiste's piano-playing animated Joe's hands. Cinematographer Bradford Young made sure the characters' Black skin looked good on screen. Questlove, Herbie Hancock and Daveed Diggs served as musical consultants.

Whether or not Powers wins any trophies during this benighted and benumbed plague year, he has already hit the jackpot. He has achieved the dream of most working artists -- creating uniquely personal works that touch on the biggest of Big Issues and manage to resonate with people.

"When you're in the trenches and you're working on something like a One Night In Miami or a Soul, there are days when you wonder if anyone's going to like what you're doing," Powers says. "So, to see it connect is satisfying in a way I can't articulate."

LISTEN TO THE FULL TAKE TWO INTERVIEW