Best Documentary/Nonfiction Film

Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

The stars aligned in monumental fashion for 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival, a six-weekend concert series that showcased a who’s who of Black acts. Fifty years later, the stars aligned again when Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, at the helm of a feature-length film for the first time, shaped footage of the event, rescued from storage and most of it never before seen publicly, into an electrifying documentary.

As you might expect of an accomplished musician, Thompson has a knack for arrangement, orchestrating a potent mix of elements into an unforgettable experience. Abetted by Joshua L. Pearson’s deft editing, he’s created a work of rediscovery and connection, of restoration and love, interweaving three storytelling tracks: the knockout performances; the present-day commentary of people who were at the shows, some onstage and some in the audience; and a piercing portrait of a political turning point in Black identity, a year after the murder of Martin Luther King.

The word “highlight” loses meaning when every performance is a stunner, every sequence alive with emotion and invention. That no major broadcaster in 1969 was interested in airing Hal Tulchin’s dynamic footage of Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, the Staple Singers, and Sly and the Family Stone, to name just a few of the artists who graced the stage, is a sad and damning comment on the American media of the period. Thanks to Thompson’s film, the festival’s celebration of Black talent and pride — the regal ferocity of Nina Simone, the pop exuberance of the 5th Dimension, the glorious gospel of Mahalia Jackson, the exhilarating synchronicity of Gladys Knight’s beaming Pips — takes its rightful, indelible place in the collective imagination.

Summer of Soul is a vibrant, galvanizing conversation — between then and now, between artists and their audience, between music and history. Going to the heart of the matter with a poet’s precision, Thompson’s directing debut is assured and sublime. It’s hard to recall a movie as profoundly ecstatic.

— Sheri Linden