Kemp Powers: I kind of set about doing a lot of research into just the friendship between those four men, a friendship that blossomed over several years around this night. The thing that stymied me and prevented me from ever writing that book was the fact that I couldn't quite piece together what they said, many details of what they said in the room, other than like they had bowls of vanilla ice cream.
When I started moving into playwriting, the very thing that had stymied me in terms of writing the book, which was not knowing what happened in the room, really provided a great platform for what I saw as a perfect theatrical work. Just using these men and who they were and their experiences, to create these characterizations of them to have a discussion that I feel has been going on in the Black community for many years before that and all the years since then.
Tanzina Vega: The movie explores the relationship or the responsibility that these men felt that they had to support other Black Americans. There's a an interesting tension between Malcolm X and Sam Cook in terms of their approaches. Why did you see the two of them as being at odds with each other?
Kemp: I think in reality, it probably wouldn't have been that directly at odds, but I think that their philosophies, their central philosophies about how to progress as a people. When you really look at it, they're very different methods. Sam Cook, was an incredibly shrewd businessman who figured out how to work within the system, that's the music industry, to bring about change. Malcolm X through his speeches was obviously very confrontational and about like change now, change at all cost, change by any means necessary.
These two kind of warring ideas, which are honestly, neither one of them is the right concept for every situation. It's very situational. There are definitely times when we have to be confrontational, and change has to happen, and change has to happen immediately. There's other times when, you can bring about more lasting change by working within an established structure. I just wanted to kind of bring to life that debate. Like I said, it's a debate that's been going on for a long time.
As a Black artist, as a Black public figure, I think a lot of us are often wondering, questioning, dealing with the issue of like, what if any, social responsibility do we have to our greater community? I think that's a reasonable thing to think about when you are underrepresented in whatever field you happen to be doing.
Tanzina: You also have another project which is Pixar's Soul, and you were originally brought onto the film as a screenwriter, but you ended up being a co-director. Tell me how your role ended up expanding. This is Pixar's first lead Black character, so that's a really big deal.
Kemp: All Pixar films begin with a pitch and a concept from the director. In this case it was Director Pete Docter who came up with the idea for what would become Soul. At the point at which they decided to make the main character a Black jazz musician, I think that was when they figured, "Okay, it's time to bring in a new writer-collaborator to make sure that in executing the story the character, his development gets the attention that it needs," and that's when I was brought in. That was about two years into the process.
For those who don't know, animated films take between four and eight years. It was a ways into the process, but still fairly early on. I came in as a writer, but then soon after I started, in addition to writing, Pete definitely wanted my input in lots of areas outside of writing. Things ranging from character design, to the set design, to the casting of the film, to being a vocal part of the internal and external culture trusts that were formed, of consultants and employees around the film. As I took on more and more jobs, Pete decided that having me just as a writer or writer plus wasn't enough, and that's when he asked me to be co-director and to help him finish the whole film.
Tanzina: We mentioned the fact that Soul has Pixar's first Black lead character. Again, to think about the fact that we're in 2021, and we're still having first when it comes to Black people, people of color more broadly in animation, and even in Hollywood across the board, it's surprising. When you were working on this, did that weigh a lot, like the pressure of creating Pixar's first Black lead character and how that would be received, or were you just really involved in the process and figured, "We'll see how the audience responds to it."
Kemp: It weighed on me heavily, and I don't want to make it sound like it was a burden because it was a burden I was honored and happy to take on because it was a start. The interesting thing about Soul is that, look, it's not like Pixar was trying to say that Soul was a Black movie, so to speak. The themes of Soul are universal, but our exposure to those themes are through the prism of a Black man. To me, that's a big deal, to have this universal human story be allowed to be told through the life and experiences of a Black man.
My approach to it was like, imagine if you're making a film like It's a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol, and those are films that obviously have very, very universal themes, but the main character happens to be Black, or happens to be Latino, or happens to be Asian. I think that it's about making sure that the character that's represented up on that screen in his or her world is an authentic character and recognizable to people from that community.
That was a big part of, I think, our collective responsibility to make sure we got that right. Again, at the end of the day, we were definitely trying to tell a universal story, but I think by being careful, and cautious, and detailed when it comes to the hyperspecificity, it opens people up to receive that universal story you're trying to give them.
Tanzina: You've now worked in journalism, and entertainment, to industries that have had issues, to put it mildly, with inclusivity and diversity, and welcoming, and promoting, and highlighting people of color and Black artists. Have you seen any changes in Hollywood that make you optimistic about where the industry is going from here?
Kemp Powers: Yes, I have. The thing that makes me most optimistic, because look, for example, look at this year, there is just a bumper crop of incredible films that have been created by, not just starring Black actors and actresses, but created by Black artists of color, directed by, written by, and in some cases produced by. I think that speaks to what we need.
That's the big improvement is that it's going up the chain. It's not just about having Black representation in front of the camera. It's about the representation behind the camera and most importantly, at the decision-making level. I think that you speak about a film like Soul and people are heralding the fact that there's a Black lead, they're heralding the fact that it's a Black writer and a Black director. They should also be heralding the fact that there was a Black executive producer, Kiri Hart, one of our EPs.
That's a name that people might not be as familiar with, but Kiri's had an illustrious career working at Lucasfilm and her contributions at the executive level are a big part of how these films that get out to the people, how they look, and how they're going to be received. I definitely would say that there has been improvement, but we always have to be vigilant so the pendulum doesn't swing the other way and the doors don't swing close. I'm more optimistic than in the past that the doors won't swing close, because I think you had seen more representation, though still small, at higher levels in the food chain.
Tanzina: I think your point is also, about Soul in particular, is we get there by creating universal stories with characters of all backgrounds, not just, like you said a Black animated film, but a film that happens to have a universal theme that also happens to feature Black characters. I think that's an important way to approach this. Kemp, we're talking to a lot of folks on this show every day, and a lot of the times we're asking them, is there something that they're doing to find some joy or some hope in this terrible moment that we're living in for so many people? Where, and how are you finding joy in this moment?
Kemp: It sounds really corny, but just like in Soul, I'm finding joy in the little things. I really am. I've been pretty much trapped at home.
Tanzina: That's not corny by the way.
Kemp: Okay. Like I've been trapped at home for the better part of the past 10 months and it's given me a lot of time to reflect. It's given me a lot of time to think. It's also given me a lot of time to look back and enjoy different things and introduce new things into my life. It's given me time to reconnect with people that I haven't been able to speak to for many, many years. All of those things are the gifts. I have to see them as gifts because I'm still here, and life itself is really like the biggest gift of all.
It's a troubling time, but I guess I'm lucky because I've written things that are historically centered, and I'm a bit of a history buff. As troubling as the times we're living through are, we have to remind ourselves that there's been other troubling times again, and again, and again in the past. However we come out of them, if we come out of them at all, and we're still here, then that's the gift.
Tanzina: Kemp Powers is the screenwriter for One Night in Miami and co-director and co screenwriter for Pixar's Soul. Kemp, thanks so much.
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