Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson went from spinning records at last year’s Oscar ceremony to winning a statuette of his own tonight, for directing Best Documentary Feature champ Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised).
The acclaimed DJ, music historian, and founding member of the Roots – The Tonight Show’s house band – accepted the award along with producers Joseph Patel, Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein. He began his speech by acknowledging the other nominees for Best Documentary Feature — Ascension, Attica, Flee, and Writing With Fire — then became emotional as he referenced the subject of his film: the long-overlooked Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, a series of concerts that showcased some of the greatest African American musical talent ever assembled on stage. The concerts were filmed at the time, with the intention of packaging them into a TV special, but back then the white-run television networks gave a collective shrug and passed.
“It’s not lost on me that the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival should have been something that my beautiful mother, my dad, should have taken me to when I was five years old, and… this is such a stunning moment for me right now,” Questlove said as he choked up. “But this is not about me. This is about marginalized people in Harlem that needed to heal from pain and just know that in 2022, you know, this is not just a 1969 story about marginalized people in Harlem.”
Questlove then paused, before adding, “I’m just overwhelmed right now. I’m going to get myself together and thank everyone proper when I get off stage.”
Producer Fyvolent obtained the rights to the original concert material, very little of which had ever been seen for decade upon decade. The film became Questlove’s directorial debut, as he added documentarian to credits ranging from author to Grammy winner. One of the first tasks for the team was to digitize the archive footage, a painstaking endeavor that gave Questlove time to soak in the footage.
“I had five months while they were processing the videotapes, because it took a long time to bake it and restore it,” Questlove previousy told Deadline “I just kept this on 24-hour loop for five months in a row — in my sleep, as I was eating my food, in my office, in my studio, my bathroom. This was all that I watched for five months in a row… It’s almost like I lived with it as if it were an art installation.”
(Chris Rock presented the category, beginning his remarks with a couple of jokes, one at the expense of Jada Pinkett Smith. Pinkett Smith’s husband, Best Actor nominee Will Smith, then took the stage and slapped Rock, apparently offended at the joke. Rock composed himself to continue announcing the category).
Questlove becomes one of only a handful of African American directors to win an Oscar. All of the victories have come in the documentary field. The most recent was Ezra Edelman, who won Best Documentary Feature in 2017 for O.J.: Made in America. T.J. Martin won in that category in 2012 for Undefeated. Roger Ross Williams became the first African American filmmaker to win in a directing role for his short documentary Music by Prudence, in 2010.
Summer of Soul was distributed by Disney’s Onyx Collective, Hulu and Searchlight Pictures. It won the top prize for U.S. documentary at the Sundance Film Festival last year. Over the past year, Questlove’s view of the film has evolved.
“I’ve had time to think about what this film really is. This film is about Black joy,” he previously told Deadline. “Our pain is well documented, our struggle is well documented. And we often think the antidote to the pain, the suffering of our story in America to be comedy, or that sort of thing. But it still doesn’t reflect joy and… to me, this was really truly a case of pure unadulterated joy [for the concert audience]. These are people just in their natural joyous element… This was really just the break that people needed in the summer of 1969 in the borough of Harlem.”
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