‘Across the Spider-Verse’ director Kemp Powers on Charles Johnson’s ‘Middle Passage’

Hosted by

Kemp Powers. Photo credit: Deborah Coleman

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse co-director Kemp Powers cites the impact of Charles Johnson’s novel Middle Passage on his storytelling.

Johnson’s historical novel “took over” Powers’ imagination as a 19-year-old when he first read it. Powers says he could see the epic story and locations in his head, and relate to the characters. Powers, who also wrote the 2020 Pixar film Soul, loves and still revisits Middle Passage every so often.

The book tells the saga of Rutherford Calhoun, a freed slave who sneaks aboard an illegal American slave ship leaving New Orleans en route to Africa to flee from an arranged marriage. The story depicts a historical perspective of the illegal slave trade in the United States in the 19th century. Middle Passage received critical acclaim, won the National Book Award for Fiction that year, and became a literary classic. 

More: Kemp Powers on having time to tell Spider-Man’s story

This segment has been edited for length and clarity. 

I read [Middle Passage] for the first time when I was about 19-years old. It was just this kind of epic storytelling about this guy Rutherford Calhoun. He's Creole, a biracial Creole in New Orleans. He's about to have to marry a woman he doesn't want to marry, so to escape this marriage, he takes a job on a slave ship that's going to Africa to pick up a bunch of slaves and bring them back to America. And Rutherford really tries to get in with the white captain. But then after they pick up the slaves and a crate filled with what we think might be the slaves’ deity, the slaves manage to revolt and take over the ship. And Rutherford, who's part Black and part white, kind of goes back and forth, changing allegiances between the crew and the slaves.

More: Paula Gun Allen and Charles Johnson

“JUNE 14, 1830:

Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women. In my case, it was a spirited Boston schoolteacher named Isadora Bailey who led me to become a cook aboard the Republic. Both Isadora and my creditors, I should add, who entered into a conspiracy, a trap, a scheme so cunning that my only choices were prison, a brief stay in the stony oubliette of the Spanish Calabozo (or a long one at the bottom of the Mississippi), or marriage, which was, for a man of my temperament, worse than imprisonment—especially if you knew Isadora. So I went to sea, sailing from Louisiana on April 14, 1830, hoping a quarter year aboard a slave clipper would give this relentless woman time to reconsider, and my bill collectors time to forget they’d ever heard the name Rutherford Calhoun. But what lay ahead in Africa, then later on the open, endless sea, was, as I shall tell you, far worse than the fortune I’d fled in New Orleans.” - An excerpt from Middle Passage.

It’s a very short book. It's not very long… and it just really took over my imagination. This was one of the first times in a long time that… I saw the epic story in my head, and it featured characters and locations — characters I could relate to, that look like me, in locations that I love in New Orleans. I’m a huge fan of New Orleans. It was just a really impactful book to me. 

There were also some very small details in it that… when I first read it – I was making comic books –  the fact that the captain was so paranoid – he had a magnet in the trigger of his gun, and he wore a ring so that he was the only person who could fire this gun – it was like a medieval, a pirate-style version of having a fingerprint scanner so that only you can use your own weapon. There were lots of little super-duper details like that [that] made me realize that when you’re writing fiction, [do] not gloss over fine, fine details. That story, it had so many little details like that, that I kind of took notes.

I revisit it and reread it every five or six years or so just because it's such a quick read. I just love that book so much.

Charles Johnson’s historical novel “Middle Passage” 1st Edition Cover. Courtesy of Between the Covers - Rare Books Inc 



Rebecca Mooney