Kemp Powers is having a very good few months. He scripted two acclaimed movies, “One Night in Miami” and “Soul,” and could soon become one of the rare screenwriters nominated for multiple Oscars in the same year. Both films are somewhat unusual. “Soul,” an existential adventure about a jazz musician prematurely sent to the afterlife, features Pixar’s first Black protagonist, while “One Night in Miami” demystifies clichés about its legendary subjects: Malcolm X, Cassius Clay (before he became Muhammad Ali), Sam Cooke and NFL superstar Jim Brown.
“Miami” began as a play, dramatizing an evening in 1964 when the four men gathered at a Florida hotel to celebrate Clay’s victory over heavyweight boxing champ Sonny Liston. In Powers’ hands, their congress turns into a spirited philosophical discussion about fame, civil rights and what it means to be a Black celebrity in America. After “Miami” opened on the Los Angeles stage and moved to London, Powers wrote the big-screen adaptation that would become Regina King’s feature-length directorial debut. (It’s available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.)
Powers’ involvement with “Soul” was a bit more circuitous. Longtime Pixar maestro Pete Docter (“Inside Out”) asked him to give feedback on some rough footage of the film, wanting a Black perspective on the main character’s experiences. Before Powers knew it, he signed on as both a co-writer and co-director despite not having any movie credits to his name. Now, the 47-year-old former journalist has rebooted his career. (”Soul” is available on Disney+.)
I talked to Powers about the topical resonance of “One Night in Miami,” what Malcolm X would make of current events and how Powers feels about a specific aspect of “Soul” that’s met criticism.
“One Night in Miami” was first performed onstage in 2013, and the movie was shot in 2020. A lot happened in between. Was there anything about the play, specifically its ideas...