Game Changers is a Yahoo Entertainment video interview series highlighting the diverse creators disrupting Hollywood — and the pioneers who paved the way.
2020 ended on a high note for Kemp Powers. He wrote two films — and received the best gift of all when they were both released on Christmas Day.
One Night in Miami and Pixar’s Soul both explore the experiences of Black men, though, through very different lenses. Originally written and performed as a play, One Night in Miami tells the story of the evening Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Malcom X spent together after Clay’s heavyweight title fight in 1964. Powers said that he had fun reimagining the story for the big screen.
“This idea that you have this metaphorical boxing ring, you get to spend some time watching a verbal boxing match between these intellectual gladiators. That was always something that I saw as potentially exciting in a film that I hadn’t really had any opportunity to see in a film, at least not one that positioned Black leads,” Powers tells Yahoo Entertainment.
Powers adds, “You see films like 12 Angry Men. You know there’s a rich history of these kinds of confined debate type features. But it excited me to try to bring that to something that was dealing with issues that I think have been important to the Black community for a long time and are still important today.”
While each of the iconic men in the film found success in their fields, the ’60s were a dangerous and tumultuous time in America for Black people. Clay couldn’t just fight and Cooke couldn’t just sing. They each had a responsibility to speak out against racism — even if it meant sacrificing their fame and reputations.
Powers believes that the torch of responsibility should be carried on by this next generation.
“I think it is a question one should ask themselves, what do I need to do to move our community forward? What, if any, social responsibility, do I have as an artist, as an athlete, as a public figure?” Powers asks.
Brown asked these same questions in 2009 when he criticized Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan for not doing enough for the Black community. Since then, both figures have made high-profile contributions to Black organizations.
In the current era of sports, we’ve seen a handful of top athletes emerge as leaders in the conversation about civil rights. “The wonderful thing is I think a lot of this generation of athletes, from Colin Kaepernick to LeBron James, they’re doing it anyway,” says Powers.
When asked which four Black leaders he’d profile if the film was set in 2021, Powers gave the casting a twist.
“Probably have like Jay-Z and LeBron,” he said. “It wouldn’t just be guys, it would be someone like Ava DuVernay. Those are some people not afraid to inject social issues into their art or their sport, or, you know, to make it about things that are bigger than themselves.”
Powers, who also wrote five episodes of Star Trek: Discovery, had to get creative when writing dialogue for his first feature film. One Night in Miami is historical fiction, but the conversation between the men is completely fictional. This forced Powers to rely on his own personal experiences to keep the dynamics rooted in reality.
“What would trigger my imagination is just the conversations I’ve been having with friends of mine,” he says. “The believability, I think, comes from the emotion of having engaged in very similar debates, very similar arguments.”
Powers recounts one debate that he had with a buddy about Lincoln Perry, the 1930s actor better known by his stage name Stepin Fetchit. He was the richest Black man in Hollywood but reached fame by portraying negative stereotypes of Black people.
“We had an incredibly vigorous debate about that. And people were on one side versus the other side of, ‘Is Black success enough no matter how that success comes about?’ ... And that was the foundational argument that kind of got deconstructed into the Malcolm-Sam debate that I wrote in the film,” Powers explains.
Exploring the different viewpoints within the Black community is important to Powers, who also co-wrote and co-directed Soul, which follows a Black protagonist. He says showing the diversity of the Black diaspora shouldn’t be reserved just for Black audiences.
“A person shouldn’t have to be Black to appreciate a well-told story starring a Black protagonist, and I think we're starting to see that realized a lot more cinematically and on television. That’s one of the things that really excites me as an artist, to know that there’s so many stories that can be told with Black characters,” he says.
Watch screenwriter Kemp Powers, director Regina King and the cast of One Night in Miami talking about the 'complicated relationship' between Black men and America:
— Videos produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by John Santo
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