Seven years ago, when Kemp Powers’ first play “One Night in Miami” debuted at the Rogue Machine Theatre to rave reviews and three L.A. Drama Critics Circle Awards, he was still the front page news editor at Yahoo. But soon after, when he got laid off with his stock vested and two years’ salary in the bank, he told himself, “Now’s a damn good time to make the leap of faith on your dream.”
That dream had nothing to do with movies. The playwright was focused on making his play a success, moving it from regional theater to the Great White Way. “One Night in Miami” made it to the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2016, where it was nominated for an Olivier for Best New Play, but never transferred to the West End or Broadway.
The story didn’t end there: The movie adaptation of that play, directed by Regina King in her behind-the-camera debut, launched Kemp right into the center of Oscar season. “One Night in Miami” arrives on Amazon Prime December 25, the same day that Pixar’s “Soul,” which Powers’ co-wrote and co-directed, hits Disney+. His versatility is about to go mainstream.
After 17 years of listening to people talk as a reporter, Powers said, “I learned to write in different voices.” Many of his actor friends kept asking him to write something for them to perform. “So many ideas about manhood are tied to overt testosterone and masculinity,” he said. “I know guys who are athletes, and there’s so much more to them in fighting or doing a sport than the physicality that is associated with them. I saw a wonderful opportunity to give Black actors roles that were worthy of them, that they were capable of.”
Powers centered the play on the 1964 night in Miami after Cassius Clay wins the Heavyweight Championship of the World, and then meets back at the Hampton House Hotel with his three best friends. In Powers’ dramatization of the real meeting, the four men talk for hours about their mission as powerful Black men in racist, segregated America. Football star Jim Brown, restrained and controlled, is ready to jump to Hollywood, and acts as a conciliator with Nation of Islam activist Malcolm X, who is pushing Clay to become a Muslim (while he nips from a flask), and heatedly tells defensive crooner Sam Cooke to get serious about the messages his catchy hit songs can carry.
Powers understood how to spice up the play’s commerciality: “The focus should be to Mohammed Ali, by far the most famous of those men, the most beloved athlete in history of the world,” he said in a phone interview. “But the way it was structured, he’s the kid brother, he was 22, Brown was 28 and ready to retire, and Cooke and Malcolm were the elder statement in their 30s.”
Powers was more compelled by showing who they were relaxing behind closed doors, not performing in public. “Mohammed Ali is the Trojan horse,” he said. “You open with the famous guy, you expect a play about boxing. Boxing is a metaphor, the ring is in the hotel room, and they’re all squaring off philosophically.”
The central conflict of the debate between Malcolm and Cooke was based on an internal monologue inside Kemp’s head as he found himself the only person of color in the “Star Trek: Discovery” writers room. “How much of myself do I have to sacrifice to be accepted in this environment, in this world?” he said. “My psyche was split down the middle. I put these arguments back into the mouths of the men who inspired that way of thinking.”
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
He fantasized that his play could be like Francis Coppola’s “The Outsiders.” “Everyone who was in it ended up being a star,” he said. “Swayze, Cruise, Macchio, Lowe, and Dillon.”
If the play didn’t realize his initial ambition, Powers and his rookie film director, Emmy and Oscar-winning actress Regina King (“Watchmen,” “If Beale Street could Talk”) did it with the Venice break-out “One Night in Miami,” vaulting themselves into the awards fray along with rising stars Kingsley Ben-Adir (“The Comey Rule”) as Malcolm X, Leslie Odom, Jr. (“Hamilton”) as Cooke, Aldis Hodge (“Clemency”) as Brown, and Eli Goree (“Ballers”) as Clay.
They all pulled off a high degree of difficulty — turning a talky play into compelling cinema — with help from producer Jody Klein, CEO of ABKCO Music & Records, Inc, which owns the rights to Cooke’s music, and coproducers Jess Wu Calder and Keith Calder (“Blindspotting,” “Anomalisa”).
When Powers turned to the play-to-script adaptation, he tore down the 85-minute one-room play and started over. In the film, he cuts to back stories to show the burdens “the four men were dealing with leading up to that night,” he said, “to show the fallout, after that night, that I was not able to do in the play. The first line of the play turns up at the 40-minute mark.”
Powers shared an ICM agent who represented King, who has directed a dozen TV episodes in preparation for directing a feature film. She Skyped Powers from the Atlanta set of “Watchmen.” They talked for a few hours and exchanged cell phone numbers. Even though she had not seen the play, “she was talking me into letting her direct,” Powers said. “We were super excited about each other.”
While shooting “Watchmen,” King, who is as productive as she is busy, would text or call Powers with ideas. “She would pose a question,” he said. “‘In this scene, when he says this, what does it mean and what is he trying to get to?’ It was the Socratic method. So I tweaked the script before starting casting. She invited me to be there for auditions with the actors as well.” After all the years of library research Powers put into these characters, the production leaned on him as a resource. “I was a walking encyclopedia on these four guys,” he said. “I’d give her way more additional background.”
During pre-production, King flew to New Orleans on three-day weekends to scout locations. “It has to be on the page to start with,” she said in a Zoom interview. “The heart of the story starts in the writer’s hands. You just cast actors you trust who have similar expectations as you, and want to embody these icons. All four actors never at any point wanted to do an imitation or impersonation. They went into their minds and hearts and bodies and souls.”
What King demanded from the cast, even if they were playing testosterone-ridden alpha males, was to stay open to being vulnerable and emotionally honest with one another. “I always stressed to them, remember the humanity,” she said. “People who see pictures of [these icons] think they know them. We haven’t really explored the themes behind the image to take the time to capture those vulnerable moments that every human has, that men more often than women are not comfortable with exposing. It was constantly not playing the obvious beat but the nuanced moments.”
The most dramatic scene is when Malcolm X confronts Cooke about putting his artistry and social consciousness into his songs. Both men are doomed to die young. “Ultimately, these are famous men,” said Powers. “It’s a tragedy, the idea that the two of them will be dead in less than a year after this night. I wanted people to wonder, what if they had been able to live? What if they hadn’t died, seeing how much they could have accomplished together?”
In the play, the dramatic moment when Cooke sings “A Change Is Gonna to Come” was an acapella performance in the hotel, not on The Tonight Show, which really happened, but is “lost to history,” Powers said. “It’s the only time he performed it, shortly before the song was released, posthumously.” Odom Jr. takes the movie out on a soaring note of hope and activism. The Academy actors won’t forget him.
But while the movie has several stars, Powers’ own remains just as prominent as “One Night in Miami” continues to rise.