Jongnic Bontemps might just qualify as the unofficial composer of the Black Lives Matter movement.
No fewer than four major documentaries on African American subjects — airing now, or soon, on CNN, Netflix, National Geographic and Amazon Prime — feature scores written by the Brooklyn-born, L.A.-based composer.
“I asked the universe for this,” Bontemps admits. “When the Black Lives Matter protests were happening last summer, I really wanted to be involved with my art, having something to say.” And within a matter of months, it happened.
Perhaps the highest-profile project is “My Name Is Pauli Murray,” the story of the forgotten pioneer of rights for women, people of color and the queer community that was a hit at Sundance and recently sold to Amazon Studios. It’s from “RBG” filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen.
“We loved the way Jongnic’s evocative music shifted so seamlessly to tell the story of our complex protagonist: a black non-binary lawyer, activist and writer who blazed a historic trail,” says West. Adds Cohen: “We needed the score to cover a wide range of moods, from playful to haunting, from despairing to determined, and Jongnic nailed every one.”
Four-part docu-series “We Are: The Brooklyn Saints” launched Jan. 29 on Netflix. It focuses on a community in East New York that rallies to save a youth football program. Bontemps recorded an ensemble of strings, woodwinds and piano, avoiding the hip-hop clichés that so often accompany portraits of urban youth.
CNN’s “The People v. the Klan,” a four-part docu-series that debuts April 11, tells the story of a 1981 lynching in Alabama and the fight for justice by the victim’s grieving mother, who sued the notorious white supremacists in civil court. The music, co-composed with Ceiri Torjusson, needed “energy, to show courage in the face of so much hate,” Bontemps says.
Bontemps’ most unusual score may be for “The March on Washington: Keepers of the Dream,” which bowed Feb. 18 on NatGeo. The doc traces the history of the civil rights movement and the decades of activism since then, but much of the imagery is recent: The tragic deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, among others, needed “a more contemporary urban flavor that roots us in today,” says Bontemps. He incorporated the sounds of his own breaths because “so much of what we are talking about is Black people being able to breathe.”
“They all have a very unique sound,” Bontemps says of the music. “The common factor is my perspective on how to tell these stories and what I want the audience to feel. In every case, it’s about humanizing the characters, providing that connection to the human experience.”
What the scores also have in common is a timeless sound, achieved mostly by employing real musicians, not samples or synthesizers; “Pauli Murray,” for example, demanded a 42-piece orchestra for a feeling of “American heroism,” the composer explains.
Bontemps – son of a Jamaican mother and Haitian father who met in New York in the ’70s – earned a classical education at Yale, but his grasp of the technology of modern music-making led him to form a company that, for several years, assisted other composers with their complex systems. Making the leap to full-time composer a few years ago, he scored the 2018 doc “United Skates,” about Black roller-skating culture, which eventually led to the current crop of assignments.
“The music associated with these projects,” he adds, “is focused on one thing: showing us that we are all the same. When we believe that we are all the same, we can actually start to have real conversations on how to make all of our lives better.”