There’s a two-in-five chance that an African American will walk away with the Academy Award for original score on April 25, and if so, it will be only the second time a Black composer has won in that category.
That’s because two films with Black composers were nominated this year: Terence Blanchard for “Da 5 Bloods,” and Jon Batiste, one of three composers nominated for “Soul” (along with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). That in itself is a first: before this year, only six films featuring Black composers were even nominated.
Herbie Hancock is the only African-American composer to win in the original score category, for 1986’s “Round Midnight.” Quincy Jones has seven Oscar nominations (six of them for music) without a win, although he was honored with the prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1995.
No one will argue that the Oscar odds have been against African Americans from the beginning, and it’s been especially true in the scoring categories. Aside from Jones in 1967 (“In Cold Blood”) and 1985 (“The Color Purple,” along with arrangers Caiphus Semenya and Andrae Crouch), only Isaac Hayes in ’71 (“Shaft”), Hancock in ’86 and Jonas Gwangwa in ’87 (“Cry Freedom”) received original score nominations prior to Blanchard’s first, for “BlacKkKlansman,” in 2018.
Blanchard’s scores for “Da 5 Bloods” director Spike Lee alone, soundtrack aficionados argue, should have been nominated long ago: his requiem for “Malcolm X” (1992), his world music-influenced “25th Hour” (2002) and his dramatic score for “Inside Man” (2006) were acclaimed but ignored by Oscar music voters.
Curiously, the much-maligned Golden Globe voters were ahead of the curve, nominating Blanchard’s “25th Hour” years before the Academy finally acknowledged him for “BlacKkKlansman.” Similarly, Hancock was bypassed for his groundbreaking jazz scores for both “Blow-Up” (1966) and “Death Wish” (1974), although he did manage a Grammy nomination for the latter.
Longtime Academy members deny that prejudice was involved, citing their early embrace of Quincy Jones and Isaac Hayes in the 1960s and ’70s, but in retrospect, it’s hard to explain the lack of respect for African- American composers doing top-flight work in the ’80s, ’90s and beyond.
“Soul,” which has been on a winning streak (earning score awards from the Golden Globes, Broadcast Film Critics and Society of Composers & Lyricists), is the odds-on favorite, especially considering the critical role that jazz — all written and performed by Batiste, who was even the model for the character’s hands — plays in the film. The Reznor-Ross music for the afterlife scenes rounds out the musical picture.
Reznor and Ross, meanwhile, face off against themselves with their 1940s-era score for “Mank,” which combines orchestral music with period-style jazz and dance tracks — a first for the duo, who usually (as in “Soul”) create music electronically in their L.A. studios. It’s their fourth score for director David Fincher, having won for their first, 2010’s “The Social Network.”
Two vastly different scores round out the category. James Newton Howard, a 35-year veteran of Hollywood scores (everything from “The Sixth Sense” to “The Hunger Games”), earned an eighth nomination for the Tom Hanks Western “News of the World.” His authentic 19th century folk sound (fiddles, banjos, guitars) complements the more edgy material (for the “broken, jagged, rough-hewn edge” that director Paul Greengrass sought) and the hymn-like theme for the lost souls at the center of the story.
First-time nominee Emile Mosseri earned a spot for his music for “Minari,” an unusual approach that combines piano, Mosseri’s voice, a detuned acoustic guitar and an ’80s synthesizer to create a “dream memory” accompaniment to director Lee Isaac Chung’s touching memoir of his Korean childhood on an Arkansas farm.