‘One Night in Miami’ Writer Kemp Powers on the ‘Painful’ Process of Reworking His Play for the Screen

TheWrap magazine: Powers said cutting a pivotal scene out was akin to “killing your babies”


A version of  this story about Kemp Powers first appeared in the Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine

Kemp Powers had the difficult task of acting as his own editor when adapting his 2013 stage play “One Night in Miami” for the big screen.

“One Night in Miami” — the feature directorial debut of actress Regina King — fictionalizes a real-life meeting of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke in February 1964, on the night that Ali (then Cassius Clay) won the heavyweight championship. Powers explained to TheWrap how the adaptation process both opened and closed creative doors.

“I was using my own play as source material, but I still wanted it to be very different from the play,” said Powers, who is also on Oscar’s radar the Awards season as writer and co-director of “Soul,” Pixar’s first animated film with a Black lead character. “It’s still confined in and around a hotel, but the play I wrote begins when the four of them enter the hotel room together, and it ends 85 minutes later when they leave the hotel room. It was a literal chamber piece.”

Powers said reworking his own play was more difficult than it might appear.  “The hardest part was not being precious about your own writing,” he observed. “You know the expression killing your babies? A lot of things that I loved most about the play didn’t make it into the film.” The cuts included the play’s showstopping moment, when the fourth wall breaks and Sam Cooke is performing at Miami’s Harlem Square Club. “It’s honestly the most popular part of the play,” he said. “Sam explains the difference between playing for Black and white audiences, kind of like a dream moment that gets at the root of what makes his music soul music.

“But as great as it is in the play, it just didn’t serve the story. I don’t regret cutting it, but it was very painful to let that go.”

Powers’ film takes its place alongside August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Hamilton” as stage works translated to film and released in the past year. He said that both Miami and Ma Rainey celebrate the art of dialogue, something that impressed him from an early age. “I remember as a very young kid, sitting in class and watching the movie ’12 Angry Men’ and being riveted,” he said. “There have been films driven by words before–this isn’t a new thing. However, you might not see it as much in films with predominantly Black casts. That’s kind of wonderful.”

Read more from the Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue here.

Vanessa Kirby on the cover of the Actors, Directors & Screenwriters 2021 OscarWrap

Vanessa Kirby