A Concerto Is a Conversation (2020)
Director: Kris Bowers, Ben Proudfoot
Screenwriter: Ben Proudfoot
In 2019, Peter Farrelly’s Green Book won Best Picture at the Oscars, controversy erupting around the film’s perceived whitewashing of black history and what the moment said of the contemporary United States. On the stage stood an assembly of primarily white men whose message had been read as one of acceptance and progression by The Academy, and one of a shallow saviour complex by the film’s many critics. Among the group of excited winners stood Kris Bowers, the film’s African American co-composer. Little did we know then that Bowers, per the fortitude of his grandfather Horace Bowers Sr decades prior, would be at the culmination of generations of hard work and sacrifice; the end result of his family’s pursuit of the American Dream.
2021 Oscars Documentary Short Subject nominee A Concerto Is a Conversation is co-directed by the composer it highlights, Kris Bowers sitting down directly in front of a camera to record a conversation between himself and his 91-year-old grandfather about his grandfather’s early life, his lifelong struggle against racists, and the many personal sacrifices he made in order to make a better life for himself and his family. Presented as if on the other side of the lens, and talking equally as graciously into his own, Horace Bowers Sr is an interesting subject; a man with a profound history, but whose warmth, sincerity and matter-of-factness drive home the reality of how many black Americans have been through their own stories like this one.
Through personal testimony juxtaposed with archival images and footage of Horace Sr accompanying his grandson to a concert hall for a rendition of his grandson’s own composition, A Concerto Is a Conversation takes just 13 minutes to offer a more profound depiction of racial tension, societal progression and personal vindication than many feature length films. We hear of how Horace Sr had to build a business through relationships he made over the phone because of how people would refuse to work with him or grant him business loans based on the colour of his skin. We learn of how he was first exposed to racism as a child when a white boy no older than himself called his father “boy” and his father responded with “sir”. It’s a moving portrait of a life that no doubt has infinite more details beyond the confines of the film, but more than struggle and injustice A Concerto Is a Conversation is a celebration of Horace Sr and the legacy he has forged.
In seeing the fruits of Kris Bowers’ labour as a composer, and seeing it back-to-back with the story of his grandfather, it is evident that Bowers’ work is a result of the sacrifice and courage of his grandfather, that the music he creates is as much linked to the voice of Horace Sr as it is to him. His concerto is a conversation; one that exists between himself and his grandfather, himself and his heritage, himself and his nation. It is a conversation between the combination of all of those elements and each of us.
While A Concerto Is a Conversation isn’t the kind of documentary that is likely to cause radical real-world change, it is an intimate portrait tied somewhat profoundly to a timeless artform; a thought-stirring and moving 13 minutes of documentary cinema.