Playwright and screenwriter Kemp Powers could make Oscar history this year, in more ways than one.
As a co-screenwriter of the animated Pixar film Soul, Powers is a contender for the Original Screenplay Oscar. In fact, he’s already made history with Soul; Powers is the first Black co-director of a Pixar film in its history. Only four Black screenwriters have been nominated for the Original Screenplay Oscar and only one has ever won: Jordan Peele for 2017’s Get Out.
In 2012, Powers, a Howard University graduate, wrote the short film This Day Today, which became his 2013 play One Night in Miami. In 2019, Emmy and Oscar winner Regina King announced the film adaptation of the play would be her feature film directorial debut and tapped Powers to adapt the screenplay from his own work. In a season full of adapted plays to film – and many by their own original playwrights – Powers’ One Night in Miami stands tall as a major contender. In Oscar history there have been 12 Black nominees in Adapted Screenplay and four winners: Geoffrey Fletcher for 2009’s Precious, John Ridley for 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, and Tarell Alvin McCraney and Barry Jenkins for 2016’s Moonlight.
Only eight individuals in Academy Awards history have ever been nominated for more than one screenplay Oscar in the same year. Where Powers’ dual Oscar history could happen is substantial though. Not only would he be just the second Black screenwriter to be nominated in both Adapted and Original Screenplay (after Spike Lee, who did it 28 years apart), he’d be the first to achieve it in a single year. As Soul and One Night in Miami are his first and only feature film screenplays (both of which, incidentally, came out the same day – December 25), he would also make history as the first person ever to earn double nominations with their first screenplays.
Here is the breakdown of each occurance of a screenwriter nominated twice (or more) in a single year in Academy Awards history.
1941: Billy Wilder for Hold Back the Dawn (Best Writing, Screenplay) and Ball of Fire (Best Writing, Original Story). Wilder, one of the most-nominated writers over all Oscar screenplay categories and iterations (13), is a three-time winner.
1941/1942: Emeric Pressburger for 49th Parallel (Best Writing, Screenplay; Best Writing, Original Story – WON) and One of Our Aircraft is Missing (Best Writing, Original Screenplay). Pressburger is a unique case as he was nominated twice for 49th Parallel (1941) in two separate screenplay categories at the time as well as a third nomination for One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942), at the 1943 Oscars.
1943/1944: Preston Sturges for Hail the Conquering Hero (Best Writing, Original Screenplay) and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Best Writing, Original Screenplay).
1959: Stanley Shapiro for Operation Petticoat (Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen) and Pillow Talk (Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen – WON). Shapiro and Maurice Richlin were nominated together twice in the same category, each with one more ‘story by’ credit.
1959: Maurice Richlin for Operation Petticoat (Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen) and Pillow Talk (Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen – WON). Stanley Shapiro and Richlin were nominated together twice in the same category, each with one more ‘story by’ credit.
1971: Ugo Pirro for Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Based on Factual Material or Material Not Previously Published or Produced) and The Garden of the Finzi Continis (Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium). For Pirro, his only two Oscar nominations came from his double year.
1974: Francis Ford Coppola for The Conversation (Best Writing, Original Screenplay) and The Godfather Part II (Best Writing, Screenplay Adapted From Other Material – WON). Coppola had one of Oscars’ most prolific years in 1974 when The Godfather: Part II and The Conversation were also both nominated for Best Picture. He was nominated for five Oscars that year, winning three (all for The Godfather: Part II).
1986: Oliver Stone for Platoon (Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen) and Salvador (Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen). The last person to be nominated for more than one screenplay Oscar, Stone achieved it with his 1986 films Platoon and Salvador. Both nominations came from the same category, Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, and he lost both bids to Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. Platoon won Best Picture and Stone his first of two Best Director Oscars.
So where does Kemp Powers stand in the Adapted and Original Screenplay races and can he be the first in 35 years to earn nominations in both? His place is solid in Adapted where the competition looks to be from Nomadland, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Father, First Cow, News of the World, I’m Thinking of Ending Things. I currently have him at #4 but although this is a fluid category in the 1-4 slots, I feel very good about him here.
Original Screenplay could prove to be a bit more challenging. While most early predictions, including mine, had Soul safely in the top 5, as critics’ awards began elevating Promising Young Woman and Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Minari as well as bringing back the summer hit Da 5 Bloods (from Spike Lee), it’s becoming quite a tough race. Pixar films had an amazing run in this category in the 2000s with nominations in five of those 10 years. But it’s been a while since we’ve seen one: 2015’s Inside Out was the last. I’ve had Soul all over the map in this category and at the moment have it just outside to top 5, but with only two or three near locks (The Trial of the Chicago 7, Mank and/or Promising Young Woman, depending on how you see the race), there is more than enough room and time for history to take its course.