When Spike Lee approached Blanchard with the real-life story of a black man who infiltrated the KKK, Blanchard reportedly replied: “what? You must be smokin’ some shit.” The journey from that moment of incredulity to now has seen him receive a nomination for Best Original Score at the upcoming Academy Awards.
It’s the first time he has received the Oscar nod, but as Blanchard suggested to the L.A. Times “you never miss something you never had.” Others have been less forgiving, led to wonder in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite and numerous other scandals how much race has had a part to play. The 2019 Oscars, with both Blackkklansman and Black Panther vying for Best Picture, looks to be barometer for judging just how far the tide has turned.
But, how important is it? The humble speech; the hundreds of blinking camera shutters; the creeping, predatory stretch limo … that has never been Blanchard. Instead, he’s spent a career expanding his craft: as trumpeter, bandleader, opera composer, artistic director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and as a scorer for the radical and controversial filmmaker, Spike Lee. That doesn’t sound like the résumé of a man with one eye on the red carpet.
In between the Oscar buzz and the Grammy afterglow, where Blanchard recently won Best Composition for “Blut and Boden” (listen below), we take the opportunity to celebrate his ongoing engagement with issues of race and identity in America.
Diversity Different forms of expression
Blanchard is used to having to say a lot without any words. In a session with the Oral History of Hollywood, he revealed the vibrancy of his New Orleans upbringing, which drew together jazz influences, the Second Line, Mardi Gras Indian traditions, R&B high-school dances, his father’s love of opera and church-based spiritual music. Tellingly, when music teacher Roger Dickerson asked him about his future ambitions, Blanchard replied: “I wanna have a band full of people from different parts of the world so I can learn about [their] music.” Yet, for the teenager, this felt less like “diversity” and more like an engagement with “different forms of expression.”
There is a subtle difference – between exposure to a smattering of different cultures, and in striving to explore, embody and understand different access points. In Blanchard’s summation, “diversity,” which has become something of a buzzword in dialogue surrounding the Oscars, is too meager a term to capture the way he relates to music.
Even though the Academy Awards have made some recent effort to be more inclusive: by celebrating Moonlight and Coco, or by giving Best Original Screenplay to the brilliant Jordan Peele – the first ever African American winner of the award, their reputation remains at an all-time low (2018 ratings were the lowest ever). There has been a sense that, so far, “diversity” efforts haven’t amounted to much more than appeasement or quota-filling.
Just imagine if Lee and Blanchard had approached their art in that way? Indeed, one of the reasons their films are so powerful is because they are intent on the deep exploration of different subcultures, from complex characters on either side of historical and racial dividing lines. Take their earlier work together on Do The Right Thing (1989) and Jungle Fever (1991), or later, when Blanchard took more of a central role in the composition on Malcolm X (1992), Clockers (1995), 4 Little Girls (1997) … the plots are always driven by interracial relations, both beautiful at times and horrific at others.
Through these films, the audience sees again and again how boiling points never occur within a vacuum, how temperatures rise through a convergence of racial hate, historical division and national identity. Blanchard reflects this musically by weaving together contradictory emotional and cultural reference points. Here, the soothing melody of “Hatred at its Best” from Blackkklansman provides an example; it sounds like something pulled from a patriotic Tom Hanks film:
Expressions of America
One of the most challenging aspects of Lee’s films and Blanchard’s accompanying scores is the way that symbols of America are portrayed. The beginning of Malcolm X pictures a star spangled banner burning up, while Blanchard’s mournful trumpet and consciously militaristic percussion provides a soundscape alongside Denzel Washington’s rallying tones: “I charge the white man with being the greatest murderer on earth!” … You can see why members of a puffy, white and ageing Academy may have found it hard to champion work as stark as this in the early 90s.
A similarly direct opening is used in Blackkklansman, but instead of a black activist speaking, we see Alec Baldwin delivering a racist KKK-style diatribe while images from DW Griffith’s notorious Birth of a Nation are projected onto his face. It is equally shocking – and Blanchard’s soundtrack again draws out the unnerving pathos through cultural markers, employing the same marching drums under a ghostly reworking of two songs emblematic of the ‘wholesome’ American South: Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home,” or “Suwannee River,” and the “Look Away” section Emmett’s “Dixie.”
Here, it is clear that Blanchard’s creativity is inseparable from the culture that surrounds it. “I’m not trying to create music for the sake of music … You have to be in touch with what is going on in the universe, in this time that we exist.” Indeed, when touring his Blue Note record Breathless with the E-Collective in 2015, he chose to play live in front of American cities that had experienced high rates of gun crime by and against law enforcement authorities.
In Minneapolis, Cleveland, Dallas … the musicians interacted with kids in the community and Blanchard described them as like a “goddamn Jackson Pollock painting … coming from all different walks of life.” In his art as well as his actions, the ongoing presence of race and gun violence pushes Blanchard to confront his country, however ugly it can be, and to engage with its past honestly, incorporating the darkness and violence that has served to pull it apart.
Heroism through inclusivity
The principle of shining a spotlight on the deep cracks running through American society is the basis for Blackkklansman’s script, which offers a view of 1970s Colorado Springs from three parties: the KKK, black power activists and the police. The device of having a black man infiltrate the Klan via a culturally-Jewish white cop plays into this idea: significant screen time is given to several (abhorrent in the case of the Klan) versions of America in an effort to understand and better explain the ticking time bomb that threatens to engulf them all. We see police brutality, police complacency, murderous organized racism, and the Black Rights movement, which seems close to teetering into understandable militarism at any moment.
At the middle stands Ron Stallworth, the undercover cop(s) who walks into the melee and has to play all sides: the patriotic civil servant, the racist white supremacist and the young Black Rights activist. Throughout the narrative, he stares a swirl of burning tension directly in the face without ever losing his attachment to that most nebulous, problematic and yet enduring notion: American pride. The main theme of the film is a masterstroke in calling this to life. At times it sounds heroic – at others doomed – but the symbolic U.S. rock guitar meanders through various orchestral and percussive motifs that seem intent on pushing it in different directions.
To evoke the funk, soul and flares of the 70s, Blanchard had to decide which sounds exemplify what black Americans were going through at the time, and he found himself conjuring up a particular image: Jimi Hendrix playing the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock in 1969. At a time of mounting Civil Rights tensions, Hendrix chose to play the national anthem, something that for Blanchard screamed “we’re Americans too.” He saw it in the same vein as the actions of the real Ron Stallworth, as an incredibly inclusive and heroic act: “that’s some patriotic shit … red white and blue represents all of us.”
It’s a view that demonstrates what the Oscars will hopefully celebrate on February 24, that Lee and Blanchard have been calling out racism in its many forms: institutional, individual, intercultural – and now presidential, with references to the man Lee calls “Agent Orange” in the Whitehouse – for years. But they have been doing so in an admirably nuanced way.
Blanchard commented: “When the nominations come its an honor because … as an artist you kind of feel like you have your finger on the pulse of something.” The Grammys agreed enough to give him an award, time will tell if the Academy feels the same.
Quotes taken from:
Jazz Times article – Terence Blanchard and the E-Collective: Fusion for Humanity
Terence Blanchard interview with the Oral History of Hollywood