How does an animated film about a Black band teacher in 1970s Queens and a dramatic film imagining 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 bringing these stories to life?
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 (the first African American). Then he turned his award-winning play into a screenplay and it became the directorial debut for Regina King, “One Night In Miami.” Both are brilliant works that celebrate the Black male experience.
“Soul” is a charming animated film that attempts to visualize 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 and 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 artists out to the community of the film's setting to soak in the details that make the images sing with realism. Now Pixar is adding an extra preproduction tool — the culture trust. They gather a group of people who represent a particular culture, in this instance, African Americans, jazz musicians, people who've lived the lives of those represented on screen.
Initially hired to help polish the script for “Soul,” Kemp's 12-week contract evolved into more than a year of five-day workweeks at Pixar Animation Studios. He was instrumental in casting, set design, editing, music and even marketing. Similarly, when first-time director 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," King recently told the New York Times.
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 February 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 circumstances 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, rival Black Muslims assassinated Malcolm X.
King has cast actors that have a 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 for 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 in crisis and at turning points.
“These four men, the reasons they’re icons is that they represent very specific ideas about Blackness, about manhood, about self-reliance,” Powers said in an interview with News Break. “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. It’s a discussion we’re still having today. And it’s what’s the best way forward for Black people in this country?”
Kemp is creating men who aren't perfect but are striving to be inspirations for others. Joe Gardner, the middle school bandleader in “Soul,” is also a man on a 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 may be animated and one 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 Powers 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,” King told the New York Times.
DRINKS WITH FILMS RATING
“Soul:” Four ghostly cups of coffee that can't be tasted in the Great Before out of 5
“One Night in Miami:” Four sips from a hidden flask out of 5