In his 92 years, African-American businessman Horace Bowers Sr.—one of the two main subjects of the Oscar-nominated short documentary A Concerto Is a Conversation—has faced many obstacles in his path. He’s always found a way around them.
“In any life people have some ups and downs. I’ve had them, but I was able to come out of them and keep moving without being crushed,” Bowers tells Deadline. “Sometimes we can be crushed to a point that we just don’t feel like moving again. I’ve never reached that point. I always figure, well, if they knock me down I’m going to get up and go anyway.”
Many of the barriers he encountered were the result of his race. Bowers was raised in the Jim Crow south, in tiny Bascom, Florida. He recalls as a child seeing his father treated with disrespect when they entered a country store and were attended by a young white boy.
“For the two of us to walk in there, and this kid meet my dad and say, ‘What could I do for you, boy?” That just knocked me off my—I said, ‘Wait a minute. What is this?’” Bowers remembers. “I think right at that point, at that age, I knew that there had to be a better life than that.”
In the film, directed by Bowers’ grandson Kris Bowers and Ben Proudfoot, Horace recounts leaving Florida behind as soon as he could. At 17 he hitchhiked to Los Angeles, determined to build that better life. Within a short time he got work in a dry cleaners.
“When I went into it, a presser was getting 10 cents apiece for pressing. The owner was getting a dollar for the work,” Bowers says. “And I kept looking at it—‘You’re getting 90 cents and I’m doing all the work?’ And at the first opportunity I got to go in for myself.”
He bought the dry cleaners, but it didn’t take long for him to discover there was plenty of racism to contend with in Southern California as well. Bowers applied in person for a bank loan to expand his operations, but was denied. He worked around that by mailing in subsequent loan applications; bankers who evaluated his application on the basis of its merits, rather than his race, lent him the money.
“Nothing was going to stop him and he always figured all of these ways,” Kris Bowers observes. “He never felt any sort of doubt about what he was doing and getting into these new spaces he’d never operated in before.”
Horace built a family, and his business grew to include entrepreneurial ventures and real estate.
“My grandfather’s been telling me as early as I can remember, ‘As soon as you have some money, buy some dirt.’ That’s his thought process,” Kris notes. “Probably the first time I heard him telling my older cousins that was when I was maybe 8, 9, 10 years old. To have that being prioritized really speaks volumes, for sure.”
Horace’s success created a foundation that allowed succeeding generations of his family to thrive. Kris, who just turned 32, studied music at Julliard and already has an Emmy win and now an Oscar nomination to his name. His film and television credits include composing the scores for the Oscar-winning Green Book, Bridgerton, When They See Us, and the upcoming Space Jam: A New Legacy.
Despite the demands of his business career, the film shows Horace taking an active role in his grandson’s life all along the way.
“Whatever I can do that will help him,” Horace says, “that’s what I’m here for.”
That included saying “yes” to the documentary project. The film, a New York Times Op-Doc, begins with the younger Bowers about to premiere a concerto at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. It then shifts to Horace’s home, where he asks his grandson, “Can you tell me, just what is a concerto?”
“It’s basically this piece that has a soloist and an ensemble, an orchestra,” Kris explains. “The two are having a conversation.”
The film then mirrors the musical form, and Kris and his grandfather engage in a conversation about the older man’s life experiences, and how he managed to persevere at a time when there were hardly any opportunities for African-Americans. The 13-minute film has charmed viewers with its artistry, intimacy and the warmth of the bond between the two Bowers men.
In one scene Horace presses a tuxedo for Kris in preparation for his concerto debut.
“We’re going to make you real handsome here,” Horace tells him. “You’re going to be ready to go!”
Horace tells Deadline if Kris needs his tux pressed for the Oscars, he’s standing by.
“If he needs it,” says Horace, “I’ll be there.”
Horace Bowers Sr. was born in 1929, the year of the very first Academy Awards. As he looks back on a life of overcoming hardships and achieving success, crowned with appearing in an Oscar-nominated film, he says he’s most proud “that my Heavenly Father has permitted me to stay here this long and blessed me in the way that he has blessed me. I’m just grateful for that.”
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