Oh, Harlem you have been done proud. No doubt, you have heard about the Oscar win for the documentary “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” a concert film shot in August of 1969, in the city, with the concert considered an alternative to Woodstock.

From June 29 to August 24 in 1969, thousands of Harlem residents filled into what is now Marcus Garvey Park. The stage rocked with performances from artists such as The Staple Singers, B.B. King, the Fifth Dimension, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Sly and Family Stone, and Stevie Wonder, among others.

This was a tender time in our country with the loss of Medgar Evers in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, then both the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, and ordinary African Americans were feeling hopeless in the wake of these brutal murders.

Maybe the white men in power were terrified of the brewing anger and the demand for justice because the 1969 festival was a carefully coordinated reaction to the mounting losses.

This past weekend musician and filmmaker Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and his team took home the award for best documentary feature, beating out fellow nominees including “Attica” and “Writing with Fire,” both tremendous documentaries as well. “Summer of Soul” is available for streaming via Hulu.

On stage, Questlove gave an emotional speech in which he thanked his parents, getting choked up as he referenced his father, musician Lee Andrews who died in 2016. “This is about marginalized people in Harlem that needed to heal from pain,” Thompson said. He concluded his speech with, “I’m so happy right now I could cry.”

Here is what Oscar-winning Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and his producer Joseph Monish Patel had to share about winning their Oscar for “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).”

AmNews: Ahmir how do you feel to be representing “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).”

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson: We are very happy right now to accept this award on behalf of Hal Tolson and Tony Lawrence. This is the story of two gentlemen with a dream who wanted to heal a nation that was hurting with a concert festival. And we are very fortunate enough to be the bridge to carry [that] denied moment for the last 50 years to the end zone. And I couldn’t be happier right now for two gentlemen with a dream and to see their dream come true.

AmNews: One thing about you, your love of music is abundant, and this documentary certainly showed that. [Did you have challenges?]

Thompson: You know, this film has seen, a lot of, I guess, iterations…first it started out as a straight performance, but then something happened in the pandemic. One, you know, we had a lot of time on our hands in silence. And, you know, often, when parents or people come up to me in airports, like, ‘Can you give my kid some advice?’ Like, what advice do you want to give?’ And I used to always say, ‘Embrace boredom and silence.’ I mean, the fact that I personally spent a greater part of 2020 in a farm where there was nothing but ducks and chickens to talk to me, I think that just put me in a different mind state. And one of the mental states that I was in was just—it’s not enough just to give you guys the music without the context of the music. And so a lot of the, what we call the super editing came from the great editor, Josh Pearson, was that we wanted to explain to people what was happening. And, not to mention, around April of 2020, things that were happening in 1968, 1969 were starting to mirror 2020. And so the irony wasn’t lost on us that we have a brand new film on our hands, and we went with it.

AmNews: Could you speak to how important a film like this, which celebrates Black history and culture, is right now while our culture is under attack.

Thompson: You know, in a Black history film, we also need to start reframing that. Black history is American history, and to let people know that we had a hand in building this place. The thing that I really want people to leave with, because, you know, there are people that are going to be curious about this film and see it, and there are some teachable moments. The one teachable moment that I personally, I guess, would like to stress is that we’re in a place right now where there’s a lot of people that have the power to greenlight projects, and, oftentimes, you know, as Americans, we’re always in fight or flight mode. And nine times out of ten, when something gets greenlit, it is because it is monetarily, you know, to their advantage to do so, and they often pass on things that are outside the box, or, that’s not deemed a moneymaker. And I hope that this moment shows that stories like these do matter and that instead of us living in our comfort zone…we are in a time where people are always rebooting things and rebooting ideas and whatnot.
And, you know, as I said at the podium, like, we’re still living in those exact times in ’69, where marginalized people, be it the LGBTQIA community being asked to deny their existence, or the fact that you know, critical race theory is now deemed a controversy in our schools, be it marginalized people, refugees from all over the world looking for a home and their dignity, people on the poverty line. Hopefully, this will be the paradigm shift and the turning point so that these stories can be elevated.

AmNews: Musa Jackson added such a beautiful texture to this amazing documentary. Can you speak on this?

Thompson: I will always maintain that Musa Jackson is the first person whose face you see in the beginning, and I remember when he walked into the studio—there’s no way that this guy remembers anything…he was in his mother’s womb, trying to give us context. And I was borderline dismissive because, you know, it’s like, he was 4 years old. What is he going to remember? What is he going to add to this film? And the thing is, is that, along with Marilyn McCoo and some others, like, Musa is the heart of the film. And the fact that that festival was his very first memory in life stayed with him. That moment was so genuine and it was actually captured off-camera, you know, where we were just casually talking to each other, and thank God we were rolling. But it goes to show you that even I, you know, and this is our project, like, I was ready to just throw the baby out with the bathwater. See how easily dismissive that could have been? And he is the heart of the film.

AmNews: What lesson has the last two years taught you?

Thompson: I think the lesson I learned in the last two years, and especially when you are young and Black, is that oftentimes, you know, my, my elders—and I mean elders, like teachers and occasional uncles and people on the block—they never taught us how to dream. We were taught to survive and hustle and survive. And, you know, I encourage any young person nowadays that the key to life and thriving is dreaming.Trust me, I encourage it heavily. Dreaming is everything. And, yeah. I used to think that dreams were silly. I would watch Michael Jackson on “Soul Train” talk about, ‘Yeah. I like daydreaming’ and all these things. I used to laugh at those answers, but no. For real, it’s so important right now, and I can’t stress it enough.

(And then producer Joseph Patel stepped in…)

Joseph Patel: I am in a room full of journalists, so I have to say this because I would be remiss not to. Riz Ahmed, tonight, became the 9th South Asian ever to win an Academy Award. I became the 10th. Tonight, two South Asians won an Academy Award. Also, this will please my mother: I am the first Patel ever to win an Oscar. So I’m very proud of that. But I think it is remarkable that two South Asians won an Oscar tonight, and I think that’s a small, small, small, small sign of progress.

This story has been edited for length and clarity.

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