Summer of Soul was the expected winner at the 2022 Oscars in the Best Documentary Feature category. Here’s why it was also the right choice.
The 2022 Oscars featured a well-deserved win for Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) in the Best Documentary Feature category. The film, which premiered at Sundance last year, is the feature directorial debut of musician and the tonight show bandleader Ahmir Thompson, otherwise known as Questlove, who became only the third Black director to win in the category. It is about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival and centers around never-before-seen footage of the concert series that had been stored away for more than 50 years. Performers at the event, and seen in this Hulu Original release, included Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and the group Sly and the Family Stone.
more than just a concert film, Summer of Soul also contextualizes the event and its performances through interviews with artists and attendees who were there as well as journalists, activists, and other relevant prominent figures, such as Reverend Al Sharpton and Lin-Manuel Miranda. For every music number showcased on screen, Questlove surrounds it with a rich anecdote or some historical circumstance of direct relevance.
Summer of Soul can easily be seen as simply a feel-good winner in a category that has become more and more populist in recent years due to changes in the Academy’s voting. But this film, chosen from a list of 138 eligible documentaries released in 2021, is hardly comparable to last year’s much-criticized winner, My Octopus Teacher. To the contrary, it might just be the most perfect honoree in the Best Documentary Feature category at the Oscars ever.
Why Summer Of Soul Is The Perfect Oscar Winner For Best Documentary
Of course, Questlove’s debut is an entertaining and crowd-pleasing film first and foremost classifiable as a music documentary. Its mix of iconic performers delivers toe-tapping renditions of familiar and agreeable tunes in the soul, gospel, R&B, and funk genres. And a number of the stories relayed by the talking heads in Summer of Soul concern the music and musicians themselves, from their specific backgrounds to what the featured songs mean, within the history of music and the times in which they were written and recorded.
As a music doc, it really goes deep into its subject matter, very much akin to 2014 Best Documentary Feature winner 20 Feet from Stardomwhich spotlights the unsung background singers in classic songs (interestingly enough, that film’s director, Morgan Neville, once tried to make a film out of the Harlem Cultural Festival footage that is now seen in Summer of Soul). The history found in the film extends beyond that of the event and the artists and the music, though. The documentary informs its audience on what was going on in the world—and also off the world, in the case of the Moon landing—throughout the 1960s leading up to the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. There’s also some address of where society has ended up since the event, for better and for worse.
Summer of Soul is, fitting with another tradition of the Best Documentary Feature category of the Oscars, also something of an issue film. While not as explicit in its cause as something like 2007 winner An Iinconvenient Truth, there is an air of advocacy throughout Questlove’s film that makes it feel very current despite being focused on something that happened 53 years ago. Similar to 2017 nominees I Am Not Your Negro and OJ: Made in America (which controversially won the Oscar), Summer of Soul uses events and works of the past to say a lot about race and problems society is still facing today.
Whether comparing it to this year’s four other Oscar nominees in the category or to the hundreds of nonfiction films released last year, Summer of Soul encompasses everything Oscar voters want in a documentary feature. It’s a cheer-worthy music doc, a compelling history lesson, and an insightful and impactful piece of issue-driven discourse on culture and society then and now.
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