The first episode of the series When They See Us opens with a group of teenage boys laughing as they walk through Central Park carefree with Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” playing in the background. Suddenly, the music turns slow and ominous as 15-year-old Kevin Richardson walks up to see a person getting kicked by a group of teens. Sirens and a police dispatcher become louder and the score’s tempo picks up.
The story of the group of boys who became known in the media as the Central Park Five has been extensively covered over the last 30 years—so the audience knows the fate of the five teenagers before the show begins. But the Netflix dramatization is emotional, tense and jarring, thanks to the direction of filmmaker Ava DuVernay, the performances of the young actors, and the score, which was written by 30-year-old, Juilliard-trained Kris Bowers. Bowers was a last-minute fill-in who was recommended to DuVernay when her regular composer Jason Moran, who worked on Selma and the documentary 13th, had to step away from the project for touring. After his first meeting with DuVernay, she asked Bowers to watch the first episode and then immediately give his feedback and the direction he wanted to take the score.
“I watched it by myself and then came into her office and immediately got pretty emotional about it. I couldn’t help but see myself in those young boys,” says Bowers, who was born just days before the Central Park jogger attack happened. “The first thing that came to mind was making it feel and sound more like a horror film than anything else. It felt scary. I immediately thought of my parents and of the fact that this was their biggest fear for me growing up. Growing up in Los Angeles as a young black boy, my parents were very fearful of something happening or me being in the wrong place at the wrong time or being mistaken for somebody else. You can’t help but grow up in this country and feel on some level that there’s a target on your back, essentially, as a young black man. And so it just felt scary to me, thinking about these 14-, 15-, 16-year-old boys being put through this situation.”
Bowers had musicians play atonal and jarring sounds on their instruments to create an uncomfortable, ominous mood. He started with a cello, saxophone, trumpet, and violin, running the music through filters and effects to create a haunting final product. In some cases, he even damaged the instruments to create the right effect.
“We took pretty instruments or instruments that are typically pretty and manipulated them and messed them up and damaged them in the same way that I felt like these boys were being manipulated,” he says.
Bowers created melodies and themes for each of the boys to convey both fear and chaos along with sweetness and innocence. The real Richardson played the trumpet, and we see Asante Blackk, the actor who plays him, play his instrument in a surreal scene at the end of the second episode, after the verdict was read. So, Bowers created a theme for Richardson rich with brassy trumpet notes beginning in the first episode.
For Antron McCray, particularly with the scenes with his dad Bobby, Bowers wrote a simple piano theme which comes in during the tense conversations between father and son. Yusef Salaam and his mother, Sharon, have their own piano theme, as well, which comes to fruition during her monologue in the second episode.
DuVernay gave clear direction for how she wanted the audience to feel during pivotal scenes, Bowers says. And to put himself in the position of the viewer, he avoided doing his own research into the real men who inspired the series.
“I wanted to stay with what I was seeing on screen, because there were so many times where I was writing something already knowing what happened. It would affect how I was composing and it would cause me to lead a little bit too much with the music,” he says. “There are times where, in episode one for example, in the very first interrogation, I was already going full steam ahead with this is crazy kind of music. Ava was like, ‘we have to keep in mind that this is the first time the audiences is seeing what’s happening. We have no idea how bad this is going to get.’ And it was such an emotionally taxing process that I think delving any further into the actual story probably would’ve sent me into a bit of depression, to be honest.”
But when he was done, he did a deep dive into the real story. Now, he’s hoping to get to meet the men who inspired him.