“Our stories have true value”, Kemp Powers explains to Kwame Kwei-Armah, as they discuss the standing ovation his debut play, One Night in Miami, received on its opening night in London at the Donmar Warehouse. It was an experience that confirmed a notion Powers had long held: Black stories are both important and compelling, both relevant and entertaining.
After a nearly 20-year career in journalism, Kemp Powers transitioned from writing for mainstream media publications to writing for stage and screen. Magazines and newspapers were no longer his outlets for asking difficult questions. Instead, Powers now used playwriting and screenwriting to hold his audience accountable, yet quickly became aware of the void in Black stories being told: “At the time that we opened at the Donmar… I was not aware of there being many Black stories [on stage] – stories featuring Black characters, written by Black writers, directed by Black directors”. Four years later at the BFI London Film Festival, and in the spirit of a festival that emphasised the importance of Black filmmakers, Black writers and Black film critics, it’s fitting that 2 of this year’s outstanding films originated from the pen of Powers.
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One Night in Miami was adapted by Powers for the screen, with Regina King at the helm in her directorial debut, and Pixar’s Soul was both co-directed and written by Powers. The former has a simple premise: 4 Black men (Sam Cooke, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Malcolm X) in a hotel room discussing one pertinent question – do I have to sacrifice who I am as a Black man to fit in to a wider (white) society?
Soul is equally profound in its themes, as our central character – Pixar’s first Black lead character – debates whether “all this living is really worth dying for”.
It’s with these existential questions, and with the authenticity of his characters, that Powers attempts to find commonality with his audience. At the LFF event Telling Black Stories on Screen (now available to watch on BFI YouTube), he explained to Kwei-Armah – artistic director of the Young Vic theatre and long-time friend – that these were the same debates that consumed himself and his peers while they were studying at university. “I was pretty confident that if other Black men and Black women saw [One Night in Miami], it would connect with them on a visceral level,” Powers explains.
While this is true, the questions raised in both these films have a universality that extends beyond gender or race. The central debate between Cooke and Malcolm X in One Night in Miami may be reduced to one about the merits of integrity versus success. Similarly, the anxiety that consumes Joe in Soul is centred around the expectations we place on ourselves, our failed dreams and the potential of second chances. These are undoubtedly questions we will all, at least at one point in our lives, ask ourselves, regardless of our heritage.
More importantly, Powers sees no conflict between unflinching authenticity and effective storytelling. “You can go as authentically Black, as specifically Black as possible, and in doing that you actually unearth how universal these themes are. Does any of us not being Italian make us not enjoy The Godfather (1972)? When it comes to specificity, it only gets questioned when it is specificity about ethnic groups – Black people or Latino people, people of colour.”
Powers is a playwright and filmmaker who cares about representation, an artist who does not attempt to dissociate his cultural identity from his work and clearly. It’s with this spirit that One Night in Miami and Soul were made.
- Telling Black Stories on Screen and all other industry events and Screen Talks from the LFF Programme are all available free to view on the BFI YouTube channel, including events with George Clooney, Ava DuVernay, Riz Ahmed, David Byrne, Tsai Ming-Liang, Es Devlin and Jane Tranter
- Soul will be released on Disney+ on 25 December 2020
- One Night in Miami will be released by Amazon Studios
About the LFF Critics Mentorship Programme
Acknowledging a lack of diversity in film criticism the London Film Festival Critics Mentorship programme gives meaningful experience and opportunity to a range of talented emerging film writers to hone their craft and gain new contacts by being immersed in the film festival. Now in its third year, the 2020 programme was offered exclusively to 6 up-and-coming Black writers who were mentored by Akua Gyamfi, journalist, commentator and founder of The British Blacklist, and film critic, journalist and screenwriter Kate Muir.
The mentees spent the 5 days of the mentorship programme making the most of this year’s hybrid festival experience, watching films virtually as well as meeting IRL to watch Mangrove at BFI Southbank on opening night, learning from their mentors and each other. They workshopped reviews in various styles, including for a broadsheet newspaper, a tabloid, Sight & Sound magazine and a podcast review.
As well as accessing the festival Screen Talks and industry events programme, they heard from leading names from the industry with a series of Zoom chats including with Steve McQueen and Kemp Powers, and UK film critics Mark Kermode, Baz Bamigboye, Anna Smith, Ashanti Omkar and Amon Warmann. They also spoke to Ebony Amoroso, Director of Inclusion and Diversity for Endeavor, attended a ‘meet the LFF festival programmers’ session led by Festival Director Tricia Tuttle, and met Ulrich Schrauth, the new programmer for the immersive and XR strand LFF Expanded, at BFI Southbank.
Each mentee was individually paired with a mentor from the LFF’s media partners (Evening Standard, Empire, Little White Lies , Screen Daily, Sight & Sound, Time Out), to give them insight into criticism and film writing for their outlet and giving them support to produce a number of articles from the festival.
“I’m impressed and inspired,” comments lead mentor Akua Gyamfi. ”It’s been an honour and a real pleasure to co-mentor this year’s LFF Critics Mentorship group with Kate. The young writers we chose exceeded expectation and are all testament to the brilliance of this scheme and how rich the critical world could be if it opened its doors to new and diverse writers.”
Lead mentor Kate Muir adds: “Meet the future of film criticism. I loved working with our emerging critics who were the real heroes of this year’s virtual London Film Festival.”