By Jon Burlingame | Variety
The Academy music branch made Oscar history yesterday by nominating two films with Black composers for best original score: “Soul” and “Da 5 Bloods.”
Previously, only six films featuring Black composers were even nominated in the entire 86-year history of the category: “In Cold Blood,” “Shaft,” “The Color Purple,” “Round Midnight,” “Cry Freedom” and “BlacKkKlansman.”
Herbie Hancock remains the only African-American composer to win in this category, for his jazz-filled “Round Midnight” score in 1986. Terence Blanchard (pictured at left), composer of “Da 5 Bloods,” becomes only the second Black composer to be nominated twice (his “BlacKkKlansman” was nominated in 2018, duplicating Quincy Jones’ feat from 1967’s “In Cold Blood” and 1985’s “The Color Purple”).
The late soul genius Isaac Hayes was nominated for his groundbreaking “Shaft” score in 1971; he lost the score award that year but won song honors for his now-iconic title theme. South African jazz musician Jonas Gwangwa was later nominated (along with composer George Fenton) for the anti-apartheid drama “Cry Freedom” in 1987.
Three composers were nominated for Pixar’s “Soul”: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who created the ethereal afterlife backdrop for the film, and Jon Batiste – the Louisiana-born African-American bandleader on “Late Night With Stephen Colbert” – who supplied all the jazz and whose piano performances are captured in the film’s animation.
Batiste’s contributions were debated within the Academy music branch’s executive committee, sources say, as Academy rules normally do not permit more than two composers to be nominated, and the actual amount of dramatic score totaled 52 percent of all the music in the film, eight percent less than the standard 60 percent needed for eligibility.
But sources say the committee determined that the jazz in “Soul” amounted to more than just “source” music – that is, music from an on-screen or off-screen source in the story – and fulfilled a dramatic function.
Plus, Reznor, Ross and Batiste confirmed to the committee (and to Variety) that they collaborated late in the scoring process and were not operating entirely separately, which might have been another potential cause for disqualification.
The “limit two” rule came about, interestingly, because of one of those earlier films: “The Color Purple,” wherein lead composer Jones insisted on 11 of his musical collaborators being co-nominees with him. Two of them were Black: South African-born composer-arranger Caiphus Semenya and American-born gospel composer-arranger Andrae Crouch.
Today’s rules preclude “partial contributors (i.e., any writer not responsible for the overall design of the work” or “producers and/or arrangers not responsible for the creation of the original score.” And, relevant to this year’s competition, “in cases where three or more credited composers function as equal collaborators, a single statuette may be awarded to the group,” the rules state.
If “Soul” wins, it will mark only the fourth time in Oscar history that three (or more) composers have won for a single score. The last time was for 1987’s “The Last Emperor” – and all three collected their own statues.
African-American composers were nominated for five other films in the now-abandoned adaptation score, or original musical, categories, which included scores adapted from pre-existing material, or the creation of original song scores: Duke Ellington, for 1961’s “Paris Blues”; Calvin Jackson, one of six nominees who collaborated on 1964’s “Unsinkable Molly Brown”; Gil Askey, music director on 1972’s “Lady Sings the Blues”; Quincy Jones, who supervised 1978’s “The Wiz”; and Prince, who won for 1984’s “Purple Rain,” the last time that award was presented.