Kemp Powers is Pixar’s first Black director
Kemp Powers, the history-making screenwriter behind two of 2020’s most celebrated films, is his own competition.
“One Night in Miami,” a dramatization of the real-life gathering of four Black icons – Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown at the Hampton House in 1964 – was adapted from Powers’ award-winning play of the same name.
Powers also wrote and co-directed Pixar’s “Soul,” the story of a middle school band teacher tasked with mentoring an unborn soul in order to get a second chance at life after falling to his death on his way from getting a dream gig as a jazz musician. He is the first Black director in Pixar history.
Both films were released on Christmas Day and are major contenders for the upcoming award season, and have already racked up several NAACP Image Awards, WGA Awards and Golden Globes nominations.
Industry accolades aren’t new to Powers, 47. When “One Night in Miami” premiered on stage at the Rogue Machine Theatre in 2013, it received three L.A. Drama Critics Circle Awards, four NAACP Theatre Awards and an Olivier Award nomination.
The evening depicted in “One Night in Miami” crossed Powers’ radar through a paragraph in a book he was reading on the intersection of the civil rights movement and professional sports. Curious as to how these four historical figures, who had such an impact on him as a young man, became friends, he dug into each of their lives to connect the dots. Research was a part of his daily life – he had a 17-year career in journalism writing for dozens of publications, including Newsweek and Reuters, and was even front-page editor for Yahoo News.
Powers’ initial plan with “Miami” was to write a book that focused on the icons’ friendship, but it became the perfect jumping-off point to leap into playwriting.
“It felt very theatrical, the idea of staying in the room with these four men and exploring the conversations that you know were pertinent to each of them during that time,” he said.
Powers was brought on board as a writer in 2018 for “Soul” after Pete Docter, head of Pixar, read the script for “Miami.”
“[Pixar] had only recently made the decision to have the main character be Joe Gardner, this middle-aged jazz musician, because in earlier iterations, the main character was 22,” Powers said. He also explained that the film’s protagonist was originally going to be an aspiring actor who, ironically, got his big break in “Death of a Salesman,” but the decision landed on Gardner being a musician instead.
What was supposed to have been a short stay as a writer turned into Powers joining as a director and contributing much more to the film – from casting to character design – because he connected so strongly to the story.
“I was interested in trying to tell this universal human story through the prism of this man, because there were so many things about his life that I found incredibly personal to me,” he said. “They wanted him to go on a journey that I had been going on my entire life as a creative. I mean, he was my age, from my city, dealing with a lot of my struggles. I was able to mimic a lot of my personal experiences as a way to tell this man’s story.”
Born in Brooklyn, New York, most of Powers’ youth was spent in Coney Island, Flatbush and Kensington. Much like his animated protagonist, he worked for nearly two decades in a different profession before finally getting his artistic break. Powers has such a personal affinity for jazz – that he named his son after Charles Mingus.
Powers currently lives in Los Angeles, California, and has two children. At the moment, he is working on two projects he cannot disclose; one is animated and the other is live-action. He’ll continue to bring Black voices into creative spaces, and believes his journey speaks to increased opportunities for people of color.
“There are so many wonderful creative and rising directors of color, men and women of all different races and cultures who are in the business, and it’s a matter of time before you’ll see a lot more inclusivity and diversity in animated features. I mean, I’m not going anywhere, so you’ll see more of me.
“I’m a storyteller, first and foremost. All I want to do is tell great stories that connect people, and I’m going to continue to do that.”