Composers of Color Crash Through Awards Conversation
4th March 2021

Has the social and political upheaval of the past year brought about change in the film music community? Are composers of color now being considered more frequently for films that don’t focus on Black issues?

The answer appears to be yes, and the beneficiaries are not only the composers but also viewers, who are hearing fresh voices in both films and TV shows. For some, doors are opening to broader career options than they might have ever thought possible.

“There’s been a breakthrough in the last three years,” says Michael Abels, co-founder of the Composers Diversity Collective. He cites three films that “disproved the Hollywood adage that diversity doesn’t do big box office”: “Get Out,” “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians.”

What followed, Abels adds, were “Hollywood’s deliberate attempts to put people on notice that inclusion matters,” and finally, the Black Lives Matter movement: “People in the majority finally got that systemic racism is a thing; they saw evidence of it. We’re seeing the results of those things together.”

Abels, initially brought to prominence with the scores for Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and “Us,” has recently scored the predominantly white feature “Bad Education” and the documentary series “Fake Famous” and “Allen v. Farrow.”

The arrival on the scene of new filmmaking talent has also helped, he adds: “Those people are more welcoming of composers of color.”

Kris Bowers, among the fastest rising of today’s younger composers, had been best-known for the Oscar-winning “Green Book” and Emmy-winning “When They See Us,” both of which dealt with racism, past and present. And he recently scored the racially charged, fact-based “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.”

But he also wrote the music for two of last year’s most high-profile, mostly white-cast, limited series: the Regency-period set “Bridgerton” and the 1970s-era “Mrs. America.”

“My race is becoming less and less part of that conversation when [producers] are considering whether they want me as composer,” says the two-time Emmy nominee. “The sound of ‘Bridgerton’ [a classically styled 19th-century string ensemble] really speaks to that. For ‘Mrs. America,’ they were drawn to my music, first and foremost.”

Bowers sees “a pretty big difference” in attitude on the part of filmmakers considering him for new jobs — “breaking those barriers and doing things that aren’t just about race. There are still conversations that are a bit frustrating,” he concedes. “That’s not going to go away. But I feel like those are fewer.”

Jon Batiste, the “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” music director who is currently Oscar-shortlisted for his jazz in “Soul,” is more circumspect. “There’s a lot more opportunity, across the board, to tell stories that are rooted in the Black American cultural experience,” he says, “but a lot of Black composers are not really doing a lot of the films we’re seeing.

“There’s an awareness of the need, based on the last year and all the things that have been going on within the Black Lives Matter movement, and even the #MeToo movement, empowering women. I don’t think it’s something that we’re always very conscious of. We have to try and figure out where the disconnect is, just talk about it like we’re doing now, and put it in the public sphere.”

Batiste cites Quincy Jones’ 1960s and ’70s career as an example. Only two of Jones’ first 10 movies as composer starred a Black actor (Sidney Poitier in “The Slender Thread” and “In the Heat of the Night”), and in each case Jones was hired on the merits of his musicmaking, not on the color of his skin.

“Quincy was a pioneer in terms of bringing a lot of Black cultural understanding and jazz music to a lot of different spaces,” Batiste says. “He did it not only in films, but also in pop music with Michael Jackson. And that wasn’t that long ago.” (Similarly, two of fellow jazzman Herbie Hancock’s earliest films, “Blow-Up” and “Death Wish,” didn’t deal with Black themes either.)

Germaine Franco, whose Mexican-American heritage came to the fore in Pixar’s “Coco” — for which she co-wrote and arranged most of the songs and co-orchestrated the score — has been busy ever since, doing a variety of scores ranging from action (“Tag”) to comedy (“The Sleepover”) to animation (“Curious George: Go Wild”).

“We’re not there yet, but we have momentum,” she says. “I see a lot of composers working on all kinds of projects that aren’t necessarily related to their cultural background.”

The social-justice movement of the past year “has given the whole process more force,” Franco says, also citing the prominence of social media in calling attention to a wider range of talent. “They’re looking to see who’s behind it, and what kind of voices are involved. Creatives just want to make great work. You have to be able to think outside the comfort zone of what you’re used to. It’s an amazing time to be working.”

She praises the Universal Composers Initiative, a studio diversity program launched in 2018 that has already jump-started the careers of eight women and people of color (“To Gerard,” an animated short now on Oscar’s shortlist for possible nomination, was scored by the program’s Layla Minoui).

“We need to do a lot of work before we have a community that’s as diverse as the real world,” says Mike Knobloch, president of Global Film Music and Publishing. “We shouldn’t have qualifiers — a Black composer, an Asian composer, a woman composer — we should have composers.”

Universal music executives are choosing the next batch of promising young composers.

Oscar-nominated, Grammy-winning composer Terence Blanchard, whose awards-buzz 2020 films include Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” and Regina King’s “One Night in Miami,” chooses his projects very carefully, often seeking out those that are significant in terms of Black history and culture.

“When I first got into the business, there were certain types of films that were coming my way, stereotypical images and stuff like that, and I turned them all down. I said, ‘I’m not going to be that guy, because I haven’t been that guy in my career as a performer. I don’t need to throw away that identity just to work in film.’ And I suffered for it.”

While most of Blanchard’s 60-plus projects as composer feature primarily Black-oriented themes (including most of the 21 he’s done with Spike Lee as director or producer), a handful of notable ones are not, including “Original Sin,” “The Comedian” and last summer’s HBO hit “Perry Mason.”

Perhaps the most significant sign that progress is being made is this year’s scheduled debut of Blanchard’s large-scale masterwork “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” at New York’s Metropolitan Opera — the first by a Black composer in the opera’s 138-year history. With a libretto by his frequent film collaborator Kasi Lemmons (“Harriet,” “Eve’s Bayou”) and based on a memoir by New York Times columnist Charles Blow, it incorporates not only symphonic music but also jazz, blues and gospel elements.

Blanchard says that the turmoil in America reminds him of the 1960s, and that “you need to start thinking about what you want to do with your art and all of the messages that you want to convey.”

Michael Abels strikes a final note of caution: “What I don’t know is whether this is just a fad, or a sea change. For our society to become truly inclusive will take a generation. The question is whether we have the focus and understanding and commitment to make sure that it becomes a reality.”

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