The expected Oscar showdown between Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) and Flee became a reality today with the announcement of the nominees for Best Documentary Feature. Between them, Summer of Soul and Flee have claimed most of the pre-Oscar documentary awards and at Sundance last year they each won Grand Jury prizes – Flee in the international doc category and Summer of Soul for U.S. documentary.
Flee scored an unprecedented trifecta today – claiming nominations not only for documentary feature, but for Best Animated Film and Best International Film as well.
In the documentary feature race, Flee and Summer of Soul are joined by Ascension – earning the first Academy Award nomination in that category for MTV Documentary Films; Attica – which handed Showtime its first Oscar nod for documentary feature, and Writing With Fire, the first documentary feature from India to earn an Oscar nomination. Four of the five nominated films were directed by people of color.
Summer of Soul director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson said fellow West Philadelphia native Will Smith — who earned a nomination today for his performance in King Richard – encouraged him to catch the Oscar nomination announcement live.
“He has been the voice of calmness for me,” Questlove told Deadline. “He’s the one that convinced me to get up at 4:30 this morning, just meditate and sit silently. So that’s what I did. Because the anxiety one could have wondering if this is it, it could drive someone crazy.”
Summer of Soul rescues from obscurity the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, a concert series that attracted brilliant African American talent from Nina Simone to Sly and the Family Stone, the Staples Singers, Mahalia Jackson, a young Stevie Wonder and many others. It was originally filmed with the idea of pitching it as a TV special, but the networks back then collectively shrugged their shoulders at it.
“Even though it took over 50 years for it to get to this place, it finally found its place in the sun,” Questlove observed. “I’m just assisting a 50-year-old film crossing the street so that we can place it on history’s podium. I’m just the world’s best escort service right now.”
Attica also reaches back to that era, telling the story of the 1971 prison revolt in upstate New York that came to a shocking conclusion when authorities rained gunfire indiscriminately on inmates and the hostages they had taken. The film earned nominations for directors Stanley Nelson and Traci A. Curry, a first for each of them. For Nelson it represents long overdue recognition for one of the most distinguished nonfiction filmmakers of the last several decades.
“It means an incredible amount to me,” Nelson told Deadline. “I’m of the generation where the Academy Awards was the biggest thing on TV. I remember watching it with my mother. You’d talk about what the people were wearing and stuff like that. It’s just a huge, huge, huge honor.”
At a time when some states are taking active measures to restrict what history can be taught in schools, the Showtime documentary insists that what happened at Attica, and what it revealed about vicious racial animus in this country, isn’t suppressed.
“It’s hugely important that we continue to look at this story, that we don’t let the powers that be erase that history and that we confront it,” Nelson said. “One of the things the film Attica does is confront that racist history, in so many different ways.”
The directors of the five documentary features recognized today are all first-time nominees. Ascension’s Jessica Kingdon, whose ancestors hail from China, tells the story of increasing class disparities in the China of today.
“I was really bracing myself for not getting the nomination,” Kingdon admitted. “I’m still processing that we were shortlisted because when we were making this movie, it didn’t even feel like a remote possibility that this would be an Oscar contending film. So, it’s still quite the shock.”
Kingdon highlighted the larger significance of the Oscar recognition for her film.
“I hope that, overall, this nomination can encourage the industry to continue to lift up voices by women of color who are taking creative risks and for women of color to be rewarded for taking these risks,” she noted. “I hope it can inspire that.”
Two directors of color earned nominations today for Writing With Fire – Indian filmmakers Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh. Their documentary centers on a group of Dalit women – members of India’s lowest caste – who beat the odds to found a newsgathering operation that has achieved remarkable success holding the powerful accountable. Like the women profiled in the film, Writing With Fire has been a big underdog.
“We were a complete outsider to the race, an absolute indie film from the Global South, with no big studio backing or big bucks for doing an Academy campaign,” Ghosh told Deadline. “The film is not sitting on a [streaming] platform. Access is restricted. We knew that there were a lot of things working against us.”
Ghosh and Thomas were at a friend’s home in Delhi when the Oscar announcement was made – the evening in their time zone.
“They announced the first four titles and the presenter had this nanosecond of a pause before the last one,” Thomas said. “And I was just like, ‘Oh my God.’ And the moment he said ‘Writing…,’ we all lost it, we just all lost it… We felt like a little fish in an ocean of big fish, but we were just swimming with all our might, honestly.”
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