Roots drummer and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon bandleader Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson can tick off another box on his achievement list after Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony: Oscar-winning director.
Questlove took home the award for best documentary feature for Summer of Soul (... Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), beating out fellow nominees including Attica and Writing with Fire. Available for streaming via Hulu, the film details the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which lasted for six weeks and saw performances from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and Sly and Family Stone, among others.
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 in his acceptance speech.
The moment came after a tense scene in which Will Smith seemingly confronted presenter Chris Rock for making a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith, Smith’s wife.
Prior to being nominated, Questlove, a West Philly native, told The Inquirer that he was somewhat reluctant to direct the movie, in part because of the magnitude of the project. Despite the size of the festival, and the high-profile talent it attracted, it remained relatively obscure in the annals of pop culture history — an erasure that is difficult to grapple with.
However, Questlove ultimately decided to take the film on while reading Prince’s The Beautiful Ones, a posthumous memoir. In it, Prince talks about a moment with his dad taking him to see a Woodstock movie as a kid, and how it changed his life. Questlove saw a similar possibility for other youngsters with what would become Summer of Soul. Without telling the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival, he said, “what winds up replacing it as the flag-planting Black job moment is Soul Train.”
“Now, we’re just having that conversation about Black joy. It’s an important part of our story. It’s not just the bloodshed and the pain we’ve had to endure,” Questlove said. “There’s also a joy factor that we have to include in the narrative, that makes us human. Hopefully, this film will do that.”