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It’s hard to believe that Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay) was just 22 years old when he won the heavyweight championship on Feb. 25, 1964. It’s an even further stretch to imagine that on that same night, he celebrated his win alongside Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Malcolm X on a night that would undoubtedly change the course of civil rights history. Yet, both are true and Kemp Powers’ “One Night in Miami” brings the story to life. 

What began as a play in 2011 has grown with what some might call divine timing. With Regina King at the helm, the big-screen adaptation debuted at the Venice Film Festival before making its North American premiere at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival. As Black Lives Matter protests continue throughout the United States in response to the killings of Black citizens by police, the film’s timing may seem responsive for some viewers, yet its juxtaposition of the present and the past strife reveals a clear message: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Its presentation of these real activists and Hollywood legends reminds viewers that this current civil rights issues are the same ones these icons were facing in the 1960s and some of the issues they faced then are the very same ones plaguing Americans in what many once considered to be this “post-racial” society.  Powers also wrote and co-directed upcoming the Disney Pixar film “Soul.”  

I found it interesting that though we’ve talked about these figures so much in history, this film reminds us that there’s still so much we really don’t know about their legacies. 

That’s the danger of people becoming icons is that they’re both familiar, but it’s also possible to keep them at a distance. When I first wrote the play version of this, one of the big things that inspired me and when I started writing, it was like, as a reminder to not just myself, but the young people I was writing it for, that these were young men when this all happened and these guys accomplished some of these amazing feats. People always say that great movements are often started by the youth. But I was hoping that people really would understand that this is an example of that. I think with our icons often we see them as untouchable and we can never be them. We can never do what they did. I hope with the film, the younger people can see this and be like, yeah, I can accomplish amazing things.

In many ways, the arguments that these men were having are the same arguments being had today within the current movement.

I know. That’s one of the most surreal elements of it is that I wrote the script a few years ago. The conversations that these guys are having are absolutely conversations that are still happening today. I guess if I had one thing I could pray and hope to see in my lifetime is maybe getting to a point where the play and the film actually do feel like a time capsule or feel dated as opposed to feeling like of this exact moment.

What are your thoughts on Hollywood’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement?

I do like the fact that people are willing to be more vocal. I do love the fact that being unapologetically Black is now a common thing and accepted thing, because believe me, it wasn’t back in 2013 when the play came out, it was, it was very, very unusual. In fact, you know, the original productions of the play, I think people didn’t really know what to make of it because it was so unapologetically Black and people were asking questions like, who is this for? Like, “White theatergoers aren’t going to accept this.” Well it’s supposed to be a fly on the wall. You’re getting to be privy to a conversation that is happening … and maybe it could help develop a little more empathy if you understand that when doors are closed, it’s actually not about you.