In 2016, Pixar director Pete Docter and producer Dana Murray needed help fleshing out their latest movie.
The animated feature — about a New York music teacher and aspiring jazz musician who falls to his death just after being offered his dream gig — lacked a certain soulfulness.
So Docter and Murray flew “One Night in Miami” playwright, Kemp Powers, up to Emeryville and showed him a very rough cut of what would eventually become “Soul,” now playing on Disney+.
“I saw it as something that had this incredible potential as a film, but it just wasn’t quite there yet,” says Powers, who offered valuable feedback and was quickly brought on as a writer and codirector.
As a fellow middle-aged Brooklynite and jazz aficionado, Powers, 47, was able to bring credibility to the character of Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) as he journeys from the streets of New York to the underground soul-forming world of The Great Before — where he’s tasked with mentoring a problem soul named 22 (voiced by Tina Fey) — and back.
The writer began the process by asking himself some basic questions: Who are Gardner’s family members and friends? What does he do? What authentically Black spaces is he going to pass through over the course of his journey?
To get some of the businesses that Gardner visits down, the film’s story artists, animators and set designers visited local tailor shops and barbershops in Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda and Emeryville.
“With an environment like a barbershop or tailor shop that’s so unique and has so many different variants, it was very important to get as much reference as humanly possible,” says Powers.
But to get to the heart of his main character’s struggle as an artist, the writer only had to look inwards.
Powers says that he very closely identified with Gardner’s obstacle-filled artistic journey from teacher to jazz pianist, since he himself worked for 17 years as a journalist before feeling confident enough to make the bold leap into creative writing.
Since then, he most notably wrote “One Night in Miami,” an award-winning 2013 play about four Black icons — boxer Muhammad Ali, political activist Malcolm X, singer-producer Sam Cooke and football star Jim Brown — gathering together in a hotel room in 1964 to celebrate Ali’s title win just as all were hitting their professional strides.
While the account is fictional, the sentiments voiced in the play, which has since been adapted into a feature film (premiering on Amazon Prime on Jan. 15) are very real.
“The conversations happening in that story are conversations that have been happening for a long, long time,” says Powers. “This idea of what’s the best way forward for Black people, in a society, in a culture that is often hostile toward us, is still happening today.”
“Soul” may not directly tackle racial injustices, but as Pixar’s first film to include a Black codirector and feature a wide array of Black characters, it in and of itself speaks to increased opportunities for people of color.
“I’m very busy,” says Powers, who is already hard at work on two unannounced projects for Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions and Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s production company, adding, “Let’s put it that way.”
IF YOU WATCH
Starring: Voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Ahmir Khalib Thompson
Written by: Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers
Directed by: Pete Docter, Kemp Powers
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes