Multi-hyphenate Kathryn Bostic is a woman of many talents. She was the musical composer of the Grand Jury Prize-winning film Clemency at Sundance. She also executive produced the film which stars Alfre Woodard and Aldis Hodge in a story about a prison warden confronting a man on death row who claims his innocence.
Bostic also composed the music in the feature documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am for PBS American Masters, directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, and featuring interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Walter Mosley, and others.
She has also scored several of August Wilson’s theatrical productions including Gem of the Ocean and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone as well as The August Wilson Symphony.
BGN had the chance to chat with Kathryn about her work on Clemency and Toni Morrison’s documentary.
Tell us a little bit about how you got attached to Clemency because it’s not typically the norm to see musical composers serve as executive producers on films.
[laughs] Yeah, it is very unique and unusual, but at the same time, life is such a mysterious way of things unfolding. What happened was I met with the lead producer, Bronwyn Cornelius. We met, and she gave me the script, and I was just jaw-dropped with the response and the way it hit me.
Really, it hit me on a very, very profound level. I believed in this story so much that I wanted to be as helpful as I could in getting it launched and helping them find the resources. I had a friend who had spoken to me about his company and they were looking for property to work with and produce. I put the two of them together, and the rest is history. It was really a testimony to what I feel is just such an incredibly important story. I love the script and I believe in that. I think that’s, to me, what life is. It’s having faith in things that resonate with you.
We had the opportunity to speak with the filmmaker, Chinonye Chukwu, about the film and how she reached out to many inmates in prison. She even does a lot of social activism work with her organization, Pens To Pictures, where she’s helping these inmates write scripts. I was just curious to know were you involved at all with working with inmates to get a gauge on the story that you were tackling?
No, I’ve never been in that kind of environment or worked creatively in that environment, but I have such a strong feeling and response to what I feel is such a tremendous imbalance in terms of incarceration and the prison system. I just find the whole thing to be very troubling in so far as the amount of people who are wrongly accused and also the amount of Black and brown people who continuously get charged and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit or if they did commit, they were lesser charges.
It’s not to dismiss the fact that there are horrific events that absolutely require that kind of incarceration or imprisonment in terms of solitary confinement, what have you. That’s the way in which a lot of people feel is how to deal with the criminal element. I just find the conditions that so many people are placed under just completely inhumane. That kind of platform is something that not only resonates with me, but that I have a sense of activism about.
When you are composing and coming up with a score for a film, what is that process like for you? Are you reading the script? Are you gathering information from other films that are of that same genre or of that same story? What’s your process like when you’re conceptualizing the score?
For Clemency, the process…each film is different. For example …I’ll get into it in a little bit. I also wrote the score to the Toni Morrison documentary, The Pieces I Am. Those two were very different approaches. Clemency is a very stark film. Chinonye really wanted to describe the sparseness of sound and the monotone quality of the day-to-day lives of these prisoners and also the toll that it takes not only on them, but the warden and the guards who have to handle this lifestyle in very, very specific terms. There’s a protocol.
The film was edited actually without any music, which was challenging in the sense that you look at a film and you look at the visuals and you figure out what is the sound that’s going to enhance the emotional context of that scene and the overall emotional context of the movie. In the case of Clemency, there was initially very, very little music, and there still is very little music, but initially, there might have been maybe one or two cues. Then as we kept going back and forth with the process. You look at the film, you look at the pace, and music always enhances the pace of the movie, of the scene. It helps to move it forward.
It was really a question of figuring out where does music come in and where does it come out and what kind of music. In this case, we tried different genres. We tried a lot of vocal textures, we tried some strings, a lot of different types of approaches, but it was very nontraditional scoring. We finally ended up with this kind of industrial soundscape approach. I wanted to have a pulse, a subtle pulse in several of the music cues, to reflect the passage of time. The movie had several shots where you just see the clock ticking. Especially for these inmates on death row, the clock is winding down towards their life being terminated.
I wanted the music to have that sensibility of pulse and also the internal pulse that Bernadine, the warden, that was played with brilliance by Alfre Woodard. I wanted to show that internal time bomb ticking of her, of the pressure of the stress of being in that position to constantly be the person who is there to terminate someone’s life on death row. The music was very subtle in underscoring that timing, the timing of things, the protocol of timing in the prison system. You have your time in solitary confinement. What is that like? You have your time to be out and doing recreational activities. Everything is very, very specific.
You mentioned organic and, for me, one of the most organic and authentic moments of Clemency is the shot of Bernadine Williams at the end, again, played masterfully by Alfre Woodard, where the camera just stays on her and she’s just wrought with all of this emotion that we see on her face. Who made the decision in just making that a moment of silence?
That’s a very good question because the music actually does come in very, very softly about midway through her just feeling all these feelings rising up. We tried different places of the music coming in and how it would come in and then go out. Ultimately, everything was a choice that Chinonye would sign off on. We would make suggestions, myself and the producers. We would make suggestions and we would try different layers. Is it just one tone? When do we bring in the second layer of tomes?
For me, that moment is so visceral and so honest and just so vibrant. It’s all consuming, so I did not want to have music to underscore that. I really wanted to let us linger with the gut feeling. I don’t want to say too much more, but it was a weaving in and out of tones and textures that I think ultimately really served the film very well. And I’m really pleased with the end result.
What’s next for Clemency? There’s no word of a distributor yet. Are you guys in the process of that? I really hope people see this in theaters.
I’m not sure what the inner workings of all of that is at this point, but I’m confident that it’s going to have a very strong theatrical release. I think people will respond very favorably, and I’m looking forward to that.
Talk a little bit more about the Toni Morrison project.
It was just something that, again, was such an honor to work with. This is an iconic, Nobel Prize-winning, African-American woman who’s a trailblazer and recognized right away, early on in her life, her own gifts and her own autonomy as a writer and as one who would go on to really explore and expand ideology of African-American life in this country, especially from the point of view of Black women and our story. I really was very honored to work on this project.
This was a different scoring process because I had a lot of free range to write what I felt worked for the film. The director and editor gave me tremendous leeway, so I created a score that was very much different textures of jazz, blues, some vocal texture. Then I was also fortunate enough to write the end-title song, “High Above The Water”, that was inspired by Toni Morrison’s constant references to the water and how that particular element really communicates to her in terms of storytelling, and she lives above the water. I was very excited about that particular collaboration. That’s also probably going to have a theatrical release as well. Right now, it’s on PBS American Masters, and I’m not sure when it’s going to air, but we’re, we’re working on getting that out to as many people as possible.
One moment that I really loved in the documentary was when she said that when she writes, she likes to write in the morning. That’s the moment that her mind just is most creative. I love that because I’m that person too. I also like writing in the morning. It’s nice to know that I have that in common with Toni Morrison.
Yeah, that’s when the muse hits her, exactly. She honors that. Again, I’m always appreciative and fascinated by artists who really recognize their own autonomy and their own individuality in their work and that that’s what sustains them. I think it’s something that gets tangential in terms of importance. I think people really don’t value their own unique purpose enough. I think we’re in a day and age where everybody wants to be like this or like that. There’s such a tendency to be aware of the collective, which is absolutely important, but a lot of the great artists that I’ve had the good fortune to work with, including August Wilson, for instance.
In fact, I wrote a symphony for him to honor him, the August Wilson Symphony, because, again, these are writers who had no choice. They came in knowing that this was a part of their purpose, that this was what navigated and drove their life was their writing and their sense of self in telling these stories. That’s been very inspiring for me. Just saying that, to circle back to Chinonye, she’s so passionate about this cause and to deal with the level of imbalance that is so pervasive in the prison system. This passion that all of these artists have, it’s infectious and it is incredibly inspiring to work with them and to have the honor of being a part of celebrating them.
Both Clemency and Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am played at Sundance. There is no distributor yet for Clemency and PBS will air Toni Morrison’s documentary later this year. For more information on Kathryn Bostic, visit her website here.
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Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online community for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She's the primary film critic for BGN and is a member of the Critics Choice Association.