How Jordan Peele's go-to composer is helping diversify Hollywood scores

Michael Abels knows filmmakers want to be inclusive — that's why he created the Composers Diversity Collective.

Michael Abels knows filmmakers want to be inclusive — that's why he created the Composers Diversity Collective

Composer Michael Abels created the musical scores for Jordan Peele's first two feature films, Get Out and Us. (Getty Images/graphic by CBC)

Earlier this year, University of California, Los Angeles released its annual Hollywood Diversity Report and its conclusion was clear: "Diversity is essential for Hollywood's bottom line." 

But with that statement came a slew of numbers that showed slow progress when it comes to making space for people of colour on screen and behind the scenes, especially in the roles of directors, TV show creators and writers. For example, less than one out of 10 film writers, and 1.3 out of 10 film directors, are people of colour. 

The report only analyzes a small sliver of Hollywood jobs, though. Peel back the curtain even further and the numbers for other roles like cinematographers, production designers, editors and producers are likely just as low, if not worse. 

When I sat down with film composer Michael Abels during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, he admitted that he didn't have access to statistics for composers in film, but he echoed the Diversity Report: "Hollywood has figured out that diversity is not just good for the soul, but also good for the box office, if you're smart about it." 

For years, music composition for film appeared to have been dominated by white men: John Williams, Hans Zimmer, James Horner, Howard Shore and Alexandre Desplat combined have taken up a large slice of film score real estate. From a gender perspective, a 2018 report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film revealed that 94 per cent of films were scored by men. 

Abels, who has been trying to get into the industry since 1984, got his big break in 2017 when director Jordan Peele discovered the Phoenix-born composer on YouTube after failing to find an African-American composer through more traditional networks. 

"I thought I was being punked," Abels remembered. "I didn't think it was true. I mean, you couldn't ask for a better debut than to debut with Get Out and [Peele's followup Us], so I've been able to take a track record into my new projects." 

Thanks to Get Out's success — Peele took home the 2018 Oscar for best original screenplay — Abels began getting messages from up-and-coming composers, many of them people of colour, asking for advice on how to break into Hollywood. His response: "Why would you ask me?" 

"You'd want to ask someone who had a hit right out of the gate rather than take this long," he continued. But those inquiries made Abels realize that there was a need for resources, networking and mentorship among composers of diverse backgrounds. So, he co-founded the Composers Diversity Collective

The Collective's website lays out its vision: "We exist to eliminate the industry's challenge to find culturally diverse music creators, music supervisors, sound engineers and musicians, to increase our own awareness of each other, and to dispel misconceptions about the stylistic range of any minority composer." 

I think most people want to be inclusive, but it's hard because being inclusive involves going outside your normal network and therefore it takes a little more effort.- Michael Abels

While the group is still in its infancy and its members are still "figuring out the best ways to implement" their three-point mission, they have hosted a number of mixers to help creatives connect and "put our faces and names in front of the players in the industry." (Some mixers, Abels noted, are hosted at major media companies.)

"I think most people want to be inclusive, but it's hard because being inclusive involves going outside your normal network and therefore it takes a little more effort," Abels explained. "If people are willing to put in that effort, it's the job of us who are outside of that network to go, 'Hey, over here!' That's what the collective is about. It's a way of making us visible so when people are saying, 'I wish I could be more inclusive,' I can say, OK, here you go. Take your pick." 

In the meantime, Abels himself is hoping to continue growing his resumé and gain more insight and wisdom in order to pass on to incoming mentees. This year, Abels worked on two new projects: the Netlix sci-fi original See You Yesterday, and the upcoming drama Bad Education, which was picked up by HBO shortly after receiving rave reviews at TIFF. 

As per the Composers Diversity Collective's vision, Abels is proving that composers of colour aren't confined to any style or genre. From choral arrangements to spooky remixes and now returning to his classical roots on Bad Education ("It's fun to put on my powdered wig for this"), Abels' range is a flexible strength that can one day put him up there with the Williamses and Zimmers of the film composition world. 

And he's not the only one making breakthroughs in Hollywood: Kris Bowers (Green Book), Mica Levi (Under the Skin, Jackie, Monos), Tamar-kali (Mudbound) and the continued work of veterans like Terence Blanchard (Malcolm X, BlackkKlansman) and Quincy Jones (The Italian Job, The Color Purple) are vital names keeping that fraction of diversity in film scores alive and thriving.

"I like being able to have an identity and yet have it come out in whichever way serves the film," Abels concluded. 

Abels, and many more, are here and more visible than ever. Now it's Hollywood's turn to step outside its comfort zone and invest.


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