Oscar-Nominated Screenwriter Kemp Powers on Finding Truth & Beauty in “One Night In Miami”
This interview is part of our ongoing Oscar series. The original story ran on February 2, before Kemp Powers was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Also worth noting—he co-directed Pixar’s Soul, which is nominated for Best Animated Feature.
After nearly two decades as a news reporter, Kemp Powers knew a good story when he found one. Discovering that four cultural icons — heavyweight champ Cassius Clay, soon to take the name Muhammad Ali; activist Malcolm X; crooner Sam Cooke; and NFL superstar Jim Brown — had hung out together in Miami in 1964 inspired him to recreate that night.
Powers’ play, “One Night in Miami,” enjoyed a string of regional productions before it was staged at the prestigious Donmar Warehouse in London in 2016, earning an Olivier Award nomination for Best New Play.
Powers’ script for the movie version of One Night in Miami, directed by Regina King and available from Amazon, doesn’t change the dynamic of the high octane ensemble. “I preserved the general idea that it’s a private conversation and we’re a fly on the wall. That requires it to be in a contained space but other than that, it’s really quite different,” says Powers in a telephone interview. “Only about half of the play made it into the film because it had to be a different story.”
That story centers on the 1964 night in Miami after Clay (Eli Goree) wins the Heavyweight Championship of the World. He then meets up with his friends at the Hampton House Hotel where the four men, each at a crossroads in his life, talk for hours about their positions in society as powerful Black men. Brown (Aldis Hodge) is ready to retire from football and mulling offers from Hollywood; Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) is preparing to leave the Nation of Islam; Clay is about to become a Muslim; and Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.) is eager to expand his music stardom to a larger stage.
Powers conceded that along the way some tried to persuade him to make Ali the star of the show. “I would counter that by saying, ‘you’re not allowing yourself to be in this moment in 1964.’ On this night, the most famous person in the room, by far, is Sam Cooke. And the closest second is Jim Brown. You’re not even acknowledging the fame dynamic of this night, let alone the power dynamic. Ali, at 22 years old, is more of a younger brother with his three big brothers as he’s about to make the biggest decision of his life.”
Powers says any suggestion that he create an unequal dynamic “makes me think people want the very thing I was trying not to do, which is write fan fiction. This is not that. It is fictionalized but it’s 100 percent powered by the facts. That’s who they were and what was happening in each of their lives in the days leading up to that night.”
Now, each of the movie’s four rising young actors is being touted for awards consideration, along with Powers and Regina King, the Emmy and Oscar-winning actress making her feature directing debut and proving she is as proficient behind the camera as she is in front of it.
One Night in Miami is one of two acclaimed big-screen projects for Powers this year. He also co-wrote and co-directed Pixar’s Soul, now on Disney+ and a frontrunner for 2020’s best-animated film awards.
Besides being a news reporter for, among others, Newsweek, Forbes, and Yahoo, Powers wrote the 2004 book, The Shooting: A Memoir, a personal account of a harrowing trauma in 1988 when he was 14. Playing with a gun he thought was unloaded in his Brooklyn home one afternoon, Powers accidentally shot and killed his friend. After publication of his memoir, Powers was doing research for another book that eventually became One Night in Miami, the African-American male experience encapsulated into a moment in time.
“When I first discovered this was a real night, it was before so much was online. Research and reporting involved getting on planes and going to the Library of Congress or getting public records,” says Powers. “It is unfortunate but people don’t realize you had to go on foot to get things in print [before] digital. There was also a certain joy to that. When you come across some book that’s out of print, or some new document and you go, ‘I’m holding in my hands this tangible thing’ and it goes into the box marked ‘Jim Brown’ or “Malcolm X,’ you feel like you have this treasure trove.
“Reading FBI files is always fascinating. Several [of the men] were being tracked by the FBI and under the Freedom of Information Act, it’s possible to read the files…and read the editorializing from the federal agents in those files. That was illuminating. Jim Brown [is] so well known as an athlete and of course as a Blaxploitation star but many don’t know he actually wrote his own autobiography in the 1960s when he was still a pretty young man. That’s how I discovered that moment in the film when he visits the Beau Bridges character. That was actually a real moment that he discusses in his autobiography that most people don’t know exists.”
But Powers also added and revised scenes once production was underway and King was at the helm as director. As such an accomplished actress, it’s not surprising that she was able to get such nuanced performances from the four leads. But Powers says her mastery went deeper.
“As a director, she brought so much. She was so inquisitive,” he says. “For example, there’s the moment in the film when Malcolm calls his daughter and has a conversation with her, and he leaves her hidden notes. That came about because Regina actually reached out to his daughter who told her that story. Regina called me and said, ‘maybe we should have that in the film.’ So I wrote the scene. It shows a tender, vulnerable moment of him as a father that would not have been there and it came from Regina feeling what was missing in certain moments [thanks to] her own inquisitiveness. Without her, the film would not be what it is.”
For more on One Night In Miami, check out our interview with cinematographer Tami Reiker.
For more on Oscar nominees, check out these interviews:
Featured image: ELI GOREE, KINGSLEY BEN-ADIR, ALDIS HODGE, and LESLIE ODOM JR. star in ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI. Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios. Courtesy of Amazon Studios