Ava DuVernay is reuniting with “When They See Us” composer Kris Bowers for the documentary short “A Concerto Is a Conversation.”
DuVernay will executive produce the film, which was co-directed and produced by Bowers and Ben Proudfoot. “A Concerto Is a Conversation” was selected to premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, which has shifted to a virtual model amid the ongoing pandemic. The 13-minute short, positioned to be an early Oscar contender, will begin screening at the fest on Jan. 28.
The film is currently streaming exclusively at NYTimes.com, as part of the New York Times Op-Docs series. It centers on the relationship between Bowers and his 91-year-old grandfather Horace Bowers Sr., as the virtuoso jazz pianist traces his family’s lineage. The film’s title refers both to the way Kris describes the term “concerto” to his grandfather as a conversation between orchestra and soloist, but also the back and forth between generations as the composer learns more about his grandfather’s life.
Though Kris has achieved great success at a young age (including a Primetime Emmy nod for his score for DuVernay’s “When They See Us”), he admits in the film that as a Black composer, “I’ve been wondering whether or not I’m supposed to be in the spaces that I’m in.” Horace Bowers reassures his grandson: “Never think you’re not supposed to be there.”
In a pre-recorded conversation, released Wednesday, DuVernay praises Bowers’ intimate film, calling the project, “a balm for these times.”
“I was blown away,” DuVernay tells Bowers, adding that the film — which traces Horace’s journey out of the Jim Crow South, through building a family legacy in South Los Angeles, to the debut of Kris’ violin concerto “For A Younger Self” at the Walt Disney Concert Hall last year — captured “an intimacy within the sphere of Black masculinity that is so rare to see, that crosses the generational divide in a way that is rarely seen.”
“It feels like I’m watching an exchange within my own family,” she continues. “I feel like Black people who have borne witness and participated in that exchange, it will feel beautifully familiar. And for folks who feel like that exchange is foreign or does not exist, it will be instructive. But more than anything, it is a record of a great man.”
For DuVernay, the Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning filmmaker behind “13th,” “Queen Sugar” and “Selma,” the news comes after her ARRAY team netted Film Independent Spirit Award nominations for “Lingua Franca” and “Residue” (both distributed by Array Releasing), as well as “The White Tiger” (which DuVernay executive produced under her Array Filmworks banner) on Tuesday.
In addition to the Emmy nod for DuVernay and Bowers’ collaboration on “When They See Us” (one of Netflix limited series’ 16 overall nominations), the composer previously won a Daytime Emmy Award in 2017 for “The Snowy Day.” In 2020, the composer earned his second Primetime Emmy nod for his work on FX’s “Mrs. America,” plus a Grammy nomination for his “Blue Skies” arrangement.
The composer’s filmography also includes the scores for “Green Book,” “Dear White People,” “Black Monday,” and “Bridgerton.” The in-demand composer will also provide the score for the upcoming films, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” “Respect,” “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” and “King Richard.”
Proudfoot is an award-winning short-documentary director and founder of Breakwater Studios (established in 2012), and was named one of Forbes’ “30 Under 30” last year.
Since its founding in 2011 by the Times’ Opinion department, NY Times Op-Docs has produced a number of Oscar-nominated (including “Walk Run Cha-Cha” and “4.1 Miles”) and Oscar-shortlisted films (“Stay Close”, “Alone”, “Ten Meter Tower” and “116 Cameras”).