Kemp Powers's long journey to becoming Pixar's first Black writer-director
The geniuses at Pixar had a problem, and this time, they would need to look beyond the walls of their esteemed studio for help.
The movie in question was "Soul," a tuneful jazz tale that somehow didn't quite swing. Rather ironically, the movie's main character was lacking in texture and truth and, well, any depth of soul. What to do about a lead role that, in the words of Pixar chief and "Soul" director Pete Docter, "was kind of an empty shell"?
The call went out to Kemp Powers, a rising playwright and "Star Trek: Discovery" TV writer who headed to Pixar's Bay Area headquarters with much more than notes. He had a lifetime of relevant insights.
The character in question was Joe Gardner, Pixar's first leading Black character and the heart of "Soul," which will be released on Disney Plus on Christmas Day after bypassing domestic theaters because of the pandemic. Powers will compete against himself that day when the film adaptation of his play "One Night in Miami," directed by Regina King, will land in theaters (ahead of its Jan. 15 release on Amazon Prime).
As voiced by Jamie Foxx, Joe Gardner is a 45-year-old New York middle school music teacher clinging to the dream of becoming a touring jazz pianist. At the time of that first Pixar meeting, Powers was a 45-year-old Brooklyn-born writer and musician (he has a son named Mingus, after the jazz great, as well as a daughter, MacKenzie).
The writer wanted to see Joe, once envisioned as a White character, move through authentically Black spaces.
"When I came on board, Joe was absolutely the least interesting character there," says Powers, who co-wrote the film with Docter and Mike Jones. "There was nothing there. I think it might have come from this place of fear -- people not knowing where to go with him. So I started asking lots of questions."
The playwright's contributions made him "the perfect guy at the right time," Docter says, so the next big move became a no-brainer: The filmmakers asked Powers to step into the co-director's chair. It was not only a first for Powers, but also a milestone for the studio -- the first Black director in Pixar's three-decade history of feature filmmaking.
"It's an embarrassing mantle," Powers says from his Los Angeles area home, adding: "Why did it take so damned long?"
Powers, though, remains committed to amplifying Black voices in creative workspaces where they have been underrepresented -- a seriousness of focus that traces back to his teenage years in New York.
Everything about Powers's youth changed on April 14, 1988, when the 14-year-old honors student invited two friends over to his Brooklyn home.
He brought out a revolver belonging to his mother, Evelyn, who was at work; his parents had separated about a decade earlier. (His mother is a retired nurse who was in the Army Reserves; his father, James, a charter bus driver, died of cancer in 2003.) Powers toyed with the gun and accidentally shot and killed his 14-year-old best friend he calls Henry (not his real name). The friend's family did not press charges and forgave Powers, who was sentenced to a year of counseling.
Powers decided to be motivated by Henry's memory, which inspired the writer's 2004 memoir, "The Shooting." "I felt like I had to be better than anyone else and perfect for not just myself, but two people," he says. "That is an impossible burden."
Yet eventually, part of growing up was "getting past" that tragedy. "I cannot let this be the defining event of my life," he says. "It's an awful, tragic mistake that I'm never going to be able to forgive myself for."
"I have to continue living my life," the writer says. "I told the story. I've said everything I need to say about that."
Powers always loved the written word, but while growing up in Brooklyn and finishing high school in Newport News, Va., he never saw prose as a career path. His life course changed as a freshman at Howard University, when he took an essay test. An instructor named Heather Banks took him aside to tell him he was advanced. "She confided in me later: She thought that I was a ringer -- a professional," he says. "She'd never had a freshman come in and write this way."
Banks says now, "I am so delighted to see where those skills have taken him."
From there, the spark was lit. "I was like: 'Well, I'll be damned, I'm good at something,' at a time when I really didn't know if I was good at anything," says Powers, who also liked that at Howard, he could be around "Black kids like me ... the whole diversity of the Black world."
Soon he was writing for the campus newspaper and creating comics with two friends. They began attending events like the 1993 Black Expo USA at the Washington Convention Center to promote their comic books, like the series "Flatbush Native," which centers on gritty battles in a violent urban world. "The fact that we actually sold most of our comics at the event felt amazing," says Powers, who grew up as an avid Marvel Comics fan. "I was only 19 at the time, but I remember it feeling like the most validating thing that had happened in my life up to that point."
After college, he carved out a journalism career by always being adaptable, moving from such outlets as Reuters and Forbes to Yahoo. "I jumped around to every format possible to stay in this business," he says, as both editor and reporter.
But on nights and weekends, he was writing fiction, including his play "One Night in Miami," which was critically acclaimed upon its 2013 premiere in Los Angeles. Powers had read a true story about an evening in 1964 when Cassius Clay (soon to be Muhammad Ali), having just defeated Sonny Liston in Florida, spent after-hours trading weighty ideas with three other icons: Malcolm X, NFL star Jim Brown and singer Sam Cooke. He decided to envision what could have gone down. "The one thing I would universally classify all those guys as," Powers says, "is unapologetically Black."
The play and the characters, he says, reflect ongoing debates in the Black community. "What social responsibility, if any, does any Black artist have? Is it possible to be a writer and not just a Black writer?"
Kemp Powers sat in his Baltimore hospital bed in the midwinter of 2015, weakened and contemplative. "If I survive this and make it out of here," Powers says he thought, "the hell with trying to have a space in this industry that doesn't want me anymore."
"This" was a serious muscle-tissue syndrome called rhabdomyolysis -- contracted during an allergic reaction to Tamiflu -- and "this industry" was journalism, in which Powers had toiled for nearly two decades. "I'm just going to go all-in on my creative career, and if I fail, I fail," Powers recalls thinking, "but I'm not going to fail" for lack of trying.
Powers soon recovered and quit his job as a contract editor at AOL. And once he moved to entertainment, he suddenly saw his ideas being valued instead of dismissed. "Being in theater and Hollywood feels more accepting than anything I've ever experienced," he says. "Because all I'm doing is me -- it's just my pure voice."
Pixar leaders immediately leaned in to Powers's ideas about how to deepen their "kind of hollow" main character, says "Soul" producer Dana Murray, noting that Powers "was really blunt about who he thought Joe should be." Adds Docter: "He understood the character in ways I did not at the time."
"I don't represent every kid from New York," Powers recalls, "but this guy [didn't] represent any kid from New York."
In the first "Soul" scene Powers worked on, Joe Gardner, the pianist, needs to talk with his mother (voiced by Phylicia Rashad) about how she can support his dreams as a jazz musician. Powers says he had that same conversation with his mother, who said of a writing career: "Are you ever going to be stable and on your feet?"
Powers's own experiences continued to inspire "Soul." What if Joe frequented a barber who had his own dreams? ("The relationship one has with their barber is often the longest relationship one is going to have outside their spouse or their kids," Powers says). And why wasn't Joe the modern jazzman also into hip-hop?
"I'm like, 'Time out! This is my generation,' " says Powers, 47, who appreciates hip-hop's popular sampling of such artists as Herbie Hancock. "They're symbiotic -- my generation adores jazz."
And Daveed Diggs, who voices Joe's trash-talking rival Paul, says Powers brought a humanity and a fearlessness to the tale. "There's a strength and level of conviction in the storytelling," says Diggs, no easy task because with its supernatural spaces and existential themes, "Soul" is "a weird movie."
Powers's bountiful year has launched him on a series of entertainment endeavors, including a project with Michelle and Barack Obama's Higher Ground Productions. And he plans on continuing to push Hollywood and animation to diversify.
Powers says he told Pixar colleagues during an internal talk: "I would like to believe that we learned a lot of new lessons in the course of making 'Soul' that are going to be applied to use to open the doors for more people like me."