2021 Critics Choice Documentary Awards: ‘Summer of Soul’ is the top winner

November 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

Sly Stone in “Summer of Soul (…Or, The Revolution Could Not Be Televised”) (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

With six awards, including Best Documentary Feature, Searchlight Pictures’ “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” was the top winner for the sixth annual Critics Choice Documentary Awards. The winners were announced during a ceremony hosted by comedian Roy Wood Jr. at BRIC in Brooklyn, New York, on November 14, 2021. The Critics Choice Association, a group of more than 500 movie and TV critics, presents and votes for the awards. Eligible documentaries for the 2021 Critics Choice Awards were documentaries with U.S. release dates in 2021.

“Summer of Soul,” which includes long-lost footage of the 1969 all-star Harlem Cultural Festival, is the feature-film directorial debut of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who also won the prizes for Best Director and Best First Documentary Feature. “Summer of Soul” also took the prizes for Best Music Documentary, Best Archival Documentary and Best Editing, thereby winning awards in all of the categories for which it was nominated.

National Geographic Documentary Films’ “The Rescue,” about the 2018 rescue of a group of young soccer players and their coach who were trapped in a Thailand cave, won three Critics Choice Documentary Awards: Best Director for Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (who won the prize in a tie with “Summer of Soul” director Thompson); Best Cinematography; and Best Score. “The Rescue” has also been an award winner at a major film festival, having received the Best Documentary Feature prize at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

Val Kilmer’s autobiographical documentary “Val” (from Amazon Studios) took the prizes for Best Historical or Biographical Documentary. Other winning documentaries were Roadside Attractions’ “The Alpinist” (Best Sports Documentary); HBO’s “The Crime of the Century” (Best Political Documentary); National Geographic Documentary Films’ “Becoming Cousteau” (Best Science/Nature Documentary) and The New York Times’ “The Queen of Basketball” (Best Short Documentary).

“Ascension,” director Jessica Kingdon’s documentary about consumerism in China, was tied with “Summer of Soul” with the most nominations (six each) for the 2021 Critics Choice Documentary Awards. However, “Ascension” (distributed by MTV Documentary Films) did not win any of the Critics Choice Documentary Awards for which the documentary was nominated. Also missing out on winning prizes, after getting several nominations, were Amazon Studios’ “I Am Pauli Murray” (directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West); Showtime’s “Attica” (directed by Stanley Nelson and Traci A. Curry); and Apple TV+’s “The Velvet Underground” (directed by Todd Haynes).

“Summer of Soul” has been on a hot streak, ever since it won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where the movie had its world premiere. “Summer of Soul” has the added benefit of being a triumphant story about a documentary that took 52 years to finally be released to the public. A documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival (which featured major stars such as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, B.B. King and Gladys Knight and the Pips) had been pitched to movie studios and TV networks, ever since the festival took place in 1969, but it was rejected for decades.

The unedited footage stayed in the possession of director/producer Hal Tulcin, who directed the footage that was filmed of the Harlem Cultural Festival. Before he died in 2017, at the age of 90, Tulchin signed over the rights to the footage to “Summer of Soul” producers Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein, who then hired Thompson to direct an edited film. Thompson is also known as a DJ, as the drummer for The Roots and as the band leader for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” “Summer of Soul” was released in select U.S. cinemas on June 25, 2021, and expanded to more theaters and premiered on Hulu on July 2, 2021. In addition to the archival footage, “Summer of Soul” has new and exclusive interviews with some of the festival’s artists and audience members, as well as cultural commentators.

During his multiple trips to the podium to accept awards for “Summer of Soul,” Thompson said he felt overwhelmed with excitement and gratitude. “This is the best night of my life!” he declared at one point. He thanked his entire filmmaking team, as well as Searchlight Pictures, Hulu, Tulchin and the festival artists for making the documentary happen.

Pennebaker Award recipient R.J. Cutler at the 2021 Critics Choice Documentary Awards at BRIC in Brooklyn, New York, on November 14, 2021. (Photo by Carla Hay)

Longtime documentarian R.J. Cutler received the Pennebaker Award (formerly known as the Critics Choice Lifetime Achievement Award). This award is named for Critics Choice Lifetime Achievement Award winner D.A. Pennebaker, who died in 2019. The award was presented to Cutler by Chris Hegedus, who is Pennebaker’s producing partner and wife. Cutler thanked many of his colleagues and loved ones, including his daughter Penny, who he said was born six months ago and was named after Pennebaker.

The evening had some moments of levity, particularly from ceremony host Wood. When he kept commenting on Thompson’s unique fashion sense, Thompson took off his jacket and put it on Wood. (It was an unscripted moment.) Many of the presenters (which included documentarian Barbara Kopple, “Summer of Soul” director Thompson and actress Piper Perabo) commented on the high quality of documentaries that were released this year. Dana Delany said that she can’t stop talking about the Showtime documentary “Attica,” which is a chronicle of the 1971 uprising at Attica Prison in New York state.

This year, the Critics Choice Documentary Awards had its first presenting sponsor: National Geographic Documentary Films. 

Here is the complete list of nominees and winners for the 2021 Critics Choice Documentary Awards:

*=winner

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

  • Ascension (MTV Documentary Films)
  • Attica (Showtime)
  • Becoming Cousteau (Picturehouse/National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • The Crime of the Century (HBO Documentary Films)
  • A Crime on the Bayou (Augusta Films/Shout! Studios)
  • Flee (Neon)
  • Introducing, Selma Blair (Discovery+)
  • The Lost Leonardo (Sony Pictures Classics)
  • My Name is Pauli Murray (Amazon Studios)
  • Procession (Netflix)
  • The Rescue (National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Searchlight Pictures/Hulu)*

BEST DIRECTOR 

  • Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin – The Rescue (National Geographic Documentary Films)* (tie)
  • Liz Garbus – Becoming Cousteau (Picturehouse/National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • Jessica Kingdon – Ascension (MTV Documentary Films)
  • Stanley Nelson and Traci A. Curry – Attica (Showtime)
  • Jonas Poher Rasmussen – Flee (Neon)
  • Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson – Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Searchlight Pictures/Hulu)* (tie)
  • Edgar Wright – The Sparks Brothers (Focus Features)

BEST FIRST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

  • Jessica Beshir – Faya Dayi (Janus Films)
  • Rachel Fleit – Introducing, Selma Blair (Discovery+)
  • Todd Haynes – The Velvet Underground (Apple TV+)
  • Jessica Kingdon – Ascension (MTV Documentary Films)
  • Kristine Stolakis – Pray Away (Netflix)
  • Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson – Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Searchlight Pictures/Hulu)*
  • Edgar Wright – The Sparks Brothers (Focus Features)

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY 

  • Jessica Beshir – Faya Dayi (Janus Films)
  • Jonathan Griffith, Brett Lowell and Austin Siadak – The Alpinist (Roadside Attractions)
  • David Katznelson, Ian Seabrook and Picha Srisansanee – The Rescue (National Geographic Documentary Films)*
  • Jessica Kingdon and Nathan Truesdell – Ascension (MTV Documentary Films)
  • Nelson Hume and Alan Jacobsen – The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 (Bleecker Street Media)
  • Emiliano Villanueva – A Cop Movie (Netflix)
  • Pete West – Puff: Wonders of the Reef (Netflix)

BEST EDITING 

  • Francisco Bello, Matthew Heineman, Gabriel Rhodes and David Zieff – The First Wave  (National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • Jeff Consiglio – LFG (HBO Max and CNN Films)
  • Bob Eisenhardt – The Rescue (National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz – The Velvet Underground (Apple TV+)
  • Jessica Kingdon – Ascension (MTV Documentary Films)
  • Joshua L. Pearson – Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Searchlight Pictures/Hulu)*
  • Julian Quantrill – The Real Charlie Chaplin (Showtime)

BEST NARRATION

  • 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room (Apple TV+)/Jeff Daniels, Narrator
  • Becoming Cousteau (Picturehouse/National Geographic Documentary Films)/Vincent Cassel, Narrator; Mark Monroe and Pax Wassermann, Writers
  • The Crime of the Century (HBO Documentary Films)/ Alex Gibney, Narrator; Alex Gibney, Writer
  • The Neutral Ground (PBS)/CJ Hunt, Narrator; CJ Hunt, Writer
  • The Real Charlie Chaplin (Showtime); Pearl Mackie, Narrator; Oliver Kindeberg, Peter Middleton and James Spinney, Writers
  • Val (Amazon Studios); Jack Kilmer, Narrator; Val Kilmer, Writer*
  • The Year Earth Changed (Apple TV+)/David Attenborough, Narrator

BEST SCORE

  • Jongnic Bontemps – My Name is Pauli Murray (Amazon Studios)
  • Dan Deacon – Ascension (MTV Documentary Films)
  • Alex Lasarenko and David Little – The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 (Bleecker Street Media)
  • Cyrus Melchor – LFG (HBO/CNN)
  • Daniel Pemberton – The Rescue (National Geographic Documentary Films)*
  • Rachel Portman – Julia (Sony Pictures Classics)
  • Dirac Sea – Final Account (Focus Features)

BEST ARCHIVAL DOCUMENTARY 

  • Becoming Cousteau (Picturehouse/National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • The Real Charlie Chaplin (Showtime)
  • The Real Right Stuff (Disney+)
  • Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (HBO Documentary Films)
  • Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Searchlight Pictures/Hulu)*
  • Val (Amazon Studios)
  • The Velvet Underground (Apple TV+)

BEST HISTORICAL OR BIOGRAPHICAL DOCUMENTARY

  • Attica (Showtime)
  • A Crime on the Bayou (Augusta Films/Shout! Studios)
  • Fauci (Magnolia Pictures/National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • Final Account (Focus Features)
  • Julia (Sony Pictures Classics)
  • My Name is Pauli Murray (Amazon Studios)
  • No Ordinary Man (Oscilloscope)
  • Val (Amazon Studios)*

BEST MUSIC DOCUMENTARY 

  • Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry (Apple TV+)
  • Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James (Showtime)
  • Listening to Kenny G (HBO Documentary Films)
  • The Sparks Brothers (Focus Features)
  • Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Searchlight Pictures/Hulu)*
  • Tina (HBO Documentary Films)
  • The Velvet Underground (Apple TV+)

BEST POLITICAL DOCUMENTARY

  • The Crime of the Century (HBO Documentary Films)*
  • Enemies of the State (IFC Films)
  • Four Hours at the Capitol (HBO Documentary Films)
  • Influence (StoryScope, EyeSteelFilm)
  • Mayor Pete (Amazon Studios)
  • Missing in Brooks County (Giant Pictures)
  • Nasrin (Hulu)
  • Not Going Quietly (Greenwich Entertainment)

BEST SCIENCE/NATURE DOCUMENTARY

  • Becoming Cousteau (Picturehouse/National Geographic Documentary Films)*
  • Fauci (National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • The First Wave (National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 (Bleecker Street Media)
  • Playing with Sharks (National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • Puff: Wonders of the Reef (Netflix)
  • The Year Earth Changed (Apple TV+)

BEST SPORTS DOCUMENTARY 

  • The Alpinist (Roadside Attractions)*
  • Changing the Game (Hulu)
  • The Day Sports Stood Still (HBO)
  • Kevin Garnett: Anything is Possible (Showtime)
  • LFG (HBO Max/CNN Films)
  • Tiger (HBO)

BEST SHORT DOCUMENTARY 

  • Audible (Netflix)
  • Borat’s American Lockdown (Amazon Studios)
  • Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis (Netflix)
  • Day of Rage: How Trump Supporters Took the U.S. Capitol (The New York Times)
  • The Doll (Jumping Ibex)
  • The Last Cruise (HBO Documentary Films)
  • The Queen of Basketball (The New York Times)*
  • Snowy (TIME Studios)

Non-Competitive Categories

MOST COMPELLING LIVING SUBJECTS OF A DOCUMENTARY (ALL HONOREES)

  • Ady Barkan – Not Going Quietly (Greenwich Entertainment)
  • Selma Blair – Introducing, Selma Blair (Discovery+)
  • Pete Buttigieg – Mayor Pete (Amazon Studios)
  • Anthony Fauci – Fauci (Magnolia Pictures/National Geographic Documentary Films)
  • Ben Fong-Torres – Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres (StudioLA.TV)
  • Val Kilmer – Val (Amazon Studios)
  • Ron and Russell Mael – The Sparks Brothers (Focus Features)
  • Rita Moreno – Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It (Roadside Attractions)
  • Valerie Taylor – Playing With Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story (Disney+)

PENNEBAKER AWARD

  • R.J. Cutler

Review: ‘Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),’ starring Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Sly and the Family Stone, Jesse Jackson, the Fifth Dimension, Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone

July 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Sly Stone of Sly and the Family Stone in “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

“Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”

Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” features a predominantly African American group of people (with some Latinos and white people) discussing the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place over six non-consecutive days in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood and was attended by an estimated 300,000 people.

Culture Clash: Even though the Harlem Cultural Festival had superstar music artists and was filmed (some people called it Black Woodstock), TV networks and movie distributors at the time refused to be associated with the event, which celebrated ethnic pride for black people and Latino people.

Culture Audience: “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” will appeal primarily to people interested in music and culture from the late 1960s, particularly as related to civil rights and ethnic heritage for people of color in the United States.

Nina Simone in “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

In the summer of 1969, there was a free music festival that took place in New York state, was attended by hundreds of thousands of people, and featured performances by several hitmaking artists. There was no outbreak of violence, no unsafe overcrowding, and no one died during the event. There wasn’t a food shortage, there were no weather problems, and there was no difficulty getting to the concert site. In other words, this event wasn’t Woodstock. It was the Harlem Cultural Festival, an event that was filmed but largely ignored for decades by mainstream media because it was a festival that had mostly African Americans performing at and attending the event.

The excellent documentary “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” shines a well-deserved spotlight on this important part of American cultural and music history. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (who’s best known as a DJ, the drummer for the Roots, and as the band leader for NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”) makes his feature-film directorial debut with “Summer of Soul,” which has a plethora of previously unreleased Harlem Cultural Festival footage and insightful commentary from a variety of people. “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the U.S. Documentary Competition.

The Harlem Cultural Festival took place at Mount Morris Park (now known as Marcus Garvey Park) in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, over six days: June 29, July 13, July 20, July 27, August 17 and August 24, 1969. The event featured a “who’s who” of mostly African American artists, including Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Fifth Dimension, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, the Staples Singers, Professor Herman Stevens & the Voices of Faith, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, the Chambers Brothers, former Temptations singer David Ruffin and the Edwin Hawkins Singers featuring Dorothy Morrison.

Other celebrities who performed at the event included interracial funk band Sly and the Family Stone, South African singer Hugh Maskela, Puerto Rican band leader Ray Barretto, Jewish jazz musician Herbie Mann, Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaría and Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji. Non-musical celebrities who appeared on stage included civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, comedian Moms Mabley and ventriloquist act Willie Tyler and Lester. “Summer of Soul” has electrifying performance footage of all of the above artists and celebrities. And there’s not a bad performance in the bunch.

The Harlem Cultural Festival was such a big deal that an estimated 300,000 people attended over the six days. And after the Woodstock Music Festival (attended by an estimated 400,000 people) happened from August 15 to August 18, 1969, on a farm in upstate Bethel, New York, some people gave the Harlem Cultural Festival the nickname Black Woodstock. (This documentary was originally titled “Black Woodstock.”) Both festivals had superstar acts on the bill, but Woodstock got most of the media attention and praise for being a groundbreaking festival in 1969.

The Woodstock Music Festival, which had a lineup of predominantly white hitmaking artists, went on to be celebrated as a major event for the “counterculture/hippie generation” of the 1960s. Woodstock got massive media coverage, including the Oscar-winning “Woodstock” documentary. The Woodstock Music Festival has also been hailed as the most influential music festival of all time, despite the event’s many problems, such as lack of food, shelter, medical facilities, sanitation and other safety issues. Woodstock was originally a paid ticketed event but quickly became free after too many people showed up. The overcrowding caused big problems with safety and traffic jams, to the point where the governor of New York state was monitoring the festival and was ready to call in the National Guard military force if the situation got really out of control.

Meanwhile, the Harlem Cultural Festival, which had no major safety problems, was filmed for a potential documentary, but the event was mostly ignored by national and international media. Most of the media coverage was limited to local news outlets in New York City. Movie companies and national TV networks turned down pitches for years to have a documentary on the Harlem Cultural Festival. And so, according to a prologue in “Summer of Soul,” the Harlem Cultural Festival footage just “sat in a basement for 50 years.”

“Summer of Soul” doesn’t waste a lot of time complaining about the obvious reason why the media and entertainment industries treated the Woodstock Music Festival differently from the Harlem Cultural Festival. It isn’t until toward end of “Summer of Soul” that it’s mentioned how a proposed documentary on the Harlem Cultural Festival was rejected for years by all companies that were pitched on this documentary. “Summer of Soul” shows why the Harlem Cultural Festival was so important by being the documentary this event deserves.

Longtime TV director/producer Hal Tulchin directed the footage that was filmed of the Harlem Cultural Festival. Before he died in 2017, at the age of 90, Tulchin signed over the rights to the footage to “Summer of Soul” producers Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein. “Summer of Soul” director Thompson was Fyvolent and Dinerstein’s first choice to direct the film because of his “encyclopedic knowledge of film” and because he’s someone “who understood music and its history,” according to what Fyvolent and Dinerstein say in the “Summer of Soul” production notes.

The people interviewed in the film—many who attended the Harlem Cultural Festival and some who did not—all have something substantial to say about the cultural context in which the festival took place, as well as the lasting impact on those who understand the importance of this event. This isn’t a documentary with a constant stream of talking heads over-glamorizing what the festival was, because the movie addresses the realities of civil unrest, poverty and other social issues going on for people of color in America at that time. It was a different kind of “peace and love” at this festival, which had the tone of ethnic pride and cautious optimism for the future.

“Summer of Soul” begins and ends with testimonial from Musa Jackson, a longtime Harlem resident who attended the Harlem Cultural Festival when he was 4 years old. Jackson, who has worked as a fashion model and a filmmaker, is now considered an unofficial ambassador of Harlem. He says what impacted him the most about the Harlem Cultural Festival—aside from his admitted big crush on Fifth Dimension singer Marilyn McCoo—was that he had never seen so many black people in one place at the same time and having fun. Musa Jackson remembers, “This was the first time I saw so many of us … It was like seeing royalty.” It was quite a different image from what was constantly shown in the media that black people only gathered in large numbers to protest racism.

Contrary to racist beliefs that large numbers of black people gathered in one place automatically means crime and violence, the Harlem Cultural Festival was a peaceful event where people had a good time. The festival had the support of then-New York City mayor John Lindsay, who attended and was introduced on stage to cheers from the audience. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton, who’s interviewed in the documentary, describes Lindsay as a “liberal Republican” who felt comfortable being around black people and who supported the civil rights movement.

Not all of New York’s public servants were supportive of the Harlem Cultural Festival though. Most of the New York City Police Department refused to work at the event, so the Black Panthers provided security for the festival. In the end, there was no violence and no one died because they were there. The same can’t be said of the Woodstock Music Festival.

Also in contrast to Woodstock, at the Harlem Cultural Festival, people weren’t stranded with a lack of food or lack of sanitation on the premises. It was so easy to enter and leave the festival site, that many of the Harlem Cultural Festival attendees could walk or take the subway there in just 30 minutes or less from their nearby neighborhoods. And although the attendees had to deal with sweltering summer heat, there were luckily no rain storms that caused dangerous lightning, wind gusts or widespread mud.

In 1969, the civil rights movement was hurting over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. the previous year. Protests over racial injustice and the Vietnam War led to violence in many cities. Sharpton says of the political and social climate in 1969: “People were afraid of the anger and rage spilling over.” Harlem Cultural Festival attendee Darryl Lewis comments: “So, the goal of the festival may very well have been to keep black folks from burning up the city in ’69.”

The Harlem Cultural Festival was the brainchild of promoter Tony Lawrence, who was also a nightclub singer. Through sheer persistence and showbiz hustling, he was able to get a lineup that was one of the best to showcase contemporary R&B music and other music with roots in black or Latino culture. The festival was funded by sponsors, most notably Maxwell House Coffee. Lawrence was the festival’s charismatic (and often flamboyantly dressed) host who introduced people on stage.

Allen Zerkin (a former assistant to Lawrence) and Margot Edman (a festival production assistant) are interviewed in the documentary. Edman describes Lawrence as an “ebullient guy,” “always on the move” and “very positive.” Lawrence wasn’t the type to lose his temper easily, but he had the gift of persuasive sales skills. Zerkin says, “Tony talked a big game, and he delivered.”

In an archival interview, Tulchin remembers the challenges he had to direct film footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival: “There was no budget, no money, no lights. So, the stage had to face west because I had to use the sun.”

Because the performances took place before nightfall, the artists on stage could have a better view of the audience. Mavis Staples of the Staples Singers says in an audio interview for the documentary: “I saw so many black people, and they were having a good time. And I started celebrating with them.”

While the Woodstock Music Festival had a very male-dominated lineup of artists, female artists had much more of a presence at the Harlem Cultural Festival. Because gospel music was a big part of the festival, many of the acts on stage were a solid mixture of men and women. Charylane Hunter-Gault, formerly of The New York Times, comments on the importance of gospel to African American culture: “Gospel is part of our DNA. It’s deep in the recesses of my consciousness.”

And anyone who sees “Summer of Soul” will probably say that the women lead singers are many of the performance highlights. Among the most noteworthy are Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson (especially her duet with Mavis Staples on “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”) and Gladys Knight of Gladys Knight and the Pips, who are shown performing the group’s 1967 hit “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Simone performs “Backlash Blues,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and “Are You Ready?” like an iconic artist in full command of the stage and her craft. Sharpton comments on Simone’s performance: “You can hear in her voice our pain and our defiance.”

After Mahalia Jackson performs “Lord, Search My Heart,” Jesse Jackson goes on stage to give a poignant speech about the last time he saw his civil rights mentor King. “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” was one of King’s favorite songs. Staples says of performing this gospel classic with Mahalia Jackson: “That is still my biggest honor: to sing on the same microphone as Sister Mahalia Jackson.”

Sly and the Family Stone performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival and at the Woodstock Music Festival—and they were standouts at both events. In “Summer of Soul,” Sly and the Family Stone are seen performing their hits “Sing a Simple Song,” “Everyday People” and “I Want to Take You Higher.” At the time, they were considered a highly unusual band because the musicians consisted of black men, black women and white men. Sly and the Family Stone also defied musical genres by blending R&B, rock, pop and some jazz, thereby helping pioneer a hybrid musical genre called funk.

With today’s successful bands, not much has changed in terms of how bands are still mostly segregated by race and/or gender. Looking at today’s current hitmakers, it’s still very rare to see a chart-topping band with the type of racial and gender diversity that Sly and the Family Stone had. The exceptions might be vocal groups, but not a full-fledged band that plays instruments.

Greg Errico, former drummer of Sly and the Family Stone, comments in the documentary: “Sly [Stone] wanted to address everybody and everything. Music was the common denominator. Everybody wanted to do their own thing. And we did.” Writer/journalist Greg Tate observes: “Sly and the Family Stone was a game changer on so many levels.”

Breaking down racial stereotyping was one of the reasons why it was important for the Fifth Dimension to perform at the Harlem Cultural Festival, say former Fifth Dimension singers McCoo and her husband Billy Davis Jr. in the documentary. At the time, many people thought that because the Fifth Dimension performed pop music, the group was “too white” for black audiences and “too black” for white audiences. “Back then, music was segregated,” says Davis. “We were caught in the middle.” The documentary includes the Fifth Dimension performing “Don’t Cha Hear Me Callin’ to Ya” and “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” the group’s biggest hit.

McCoo and Davis are shown reacting with joy and nostalgia when they watch the long-lost footage of the Fifth Dimension performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival. McCoo gets teary-eyed and emotional when she says, “How do you color a sound? That was one of the reasons why performing in Harlem was so important to us, because we wanted our people to know what we were about, and we were hoping they would receive us. We were so happy to be there.”

Knight, who is also interviewed in the documentary, also remembers the feeling she had being at this very unique event: “When I stepped on stage, I was totally taken aback because I didn’t expect a crowd like that.” As writer/journalist Tate says in the documentary: “At the Harlem Cultural Festival, you got an audience that was radicalized.”

The documentary includes news footage of the civil rights protests that were affecting life for people of color in the United States. “Summer of Soul” also doesn’t gloss over the problems facing disenfranchised people of color, besides racial injustice. Drug addiction (especially addiction to heroin) was an epidemic in Harlem. Harlem Cultural Festival attendee Roger Parris, who describes heroin as a “plague on the black community,” says in the documentary that he was a heroin addict for 16 years who lost everything—including his home, his marriage and his family—because of his drug addiction.

Poverty was also very much on people’s minds. There’s some news footage from 1969 showing black people in Harlem being asked what they think about NASA’s historic Apollo 11 voyage that had the first man to walk on the moon. The interviewees say that Apollo 11 didn’t matter much to them because they think the government should have used the money to help poor people instead. It’s a very different perspective than the usual praise of NASA and Apollo 11 that gets shown in documentaries about 1969.

“Summer of Soul” even discusses the changing fashion for African Americans in 1969, when the Black Power movement was starting to gain momentum. Jim McFarland, a former tailor at Orlies Custom Tailoring, comments on how more black people started to wear Afros and dashikis at that time. Hiphuggers were popular. And it was also in style for men to wear vests without shirts.

Wearing dashikis and Afros were part of a larger cultural movement of African Americans expressing pride in their African roots. Hugh Maskela’s son Selema “Sal” Masekela comments, “My father realized that there was this real hunger for black Americans to feel and see and taste what it would be like to be African.” It was around this time in the late 1960s when people began to re-examine what was being taught in American history classes and how the contributions of people of color were being wrongfully erased. There was a movement for school classrooms, the media and the government to give more recognition to African and African American culture and historical contributions made by people of African/African American heritage.

African Americans were the majority of artists and attendees at the Harlem Cultural Festival, but the event was also embraced by people in the Latino community. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wasn’t even born when the festival happened, nevertheless weighs in with this comment in the documentary: “The power of music is to tell our own stories. We had a mirror to ourselves. We write the music that comes from inside us. And then other people say, ‘That’s me too!'” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s father Luis Miranda adds: “The festival is a political statement to black and brown communities.”

Grammy-winning legend Wonder (whose performances of “It’s Your Thing” and “Shoo-Bee-Doo-Bee-Doo-Da-Day” are in the documentary) remembers what it was like to be alive in 1969: “I had a feeling that the world was wanting a change.” Wonder was a prominent figure in the civil rights movement. Actor/comedian Chris Rock, who grew up in New York City and was 4 years old in 1969, says in the documentary that it would have been easy for Wonder to rest on his laurels and just be a pop star, but Wonder took the riskier path of speaking out and doing something about social issues.

Other people interviewed in “Summer of Soul” include music executive Alan Leeds, musician Sheila E., Black Panther Party member Chris “Bullwhip” Innis Jr., former Edwins Hawkins Singers member Adrienne Kryor, Young Lords co-founder Denise Oliver-Velez, Max Roach’s son Raoul Roach, Operation Breadbasket Orchestra band leader Ben Branch and Harlem Cultural Festival attendees Dorinda Drake, Ethel Beatty-Barnes and Barbara Bland-Acosta.

“Summer of Soul” is an apt title because its a very soul-stirring film. Rather than just show the concert footage and sticking to talking about the music, the documentary does an exemplary job of putting everything in a cultural context that can be taken to heart by people of any generation. The film editing sometimes veers a little off track when people who weren’t at the festival talk about their lives, but it’s not so off-topic that it becomes an annoying distraction.

The sound mixing for the concert footage is done so well, it feels like you’re almost transported back to the festival. The documentary feels more inclusive and relatable to more people by adding in the perspectives of people who weren’t at the festival but who understand its relevance to social issues. On another level, “Summer of Soul” is also a time capsule of a bygone era when it was more possible for a relatively unknown, independent promoter to create this type of all-star festival.

And the filmmakers cared about details, such as putting the artists’ names and song titles on screen during each performance. Many concert documentaries don’t list song titles until the end credits. Anyone who watches “Summer of Soul” should experience it on the biggest screen possible. It’s the type of documentary that will inspire meaningful discussions and repeat viewings.

Searchlight Pictures released “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised”) in select U.S. cinemas on June 25, 2021. The movie expanded to more U.S. cinemas and premiered on Hulu on July 2, 2021.

Review: ‘Soul,’ starring the voices of Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey

December 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) in “Soul” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

“Soul”

Directed by Pete Docter; co-directed by Kemp Powers

Culture Representation: The animated film “Soul” features a racially diverse cast of characters (African American and white, with a few Latinos and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An aspiring jazz musician has a purgatory-like experience where he fights to save his life while encountering a cynical soul that doesn’t want to be born in any body.

Culture Audience: “Soul” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in philosophical stories about the meaning of life that are wrapped in a bright and shiny package of a Disney/Pixar animated movie.

Counselor Jerry (voiced by Richard Ayoade), Counselor Jerry (voiced by Alice Braga), 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), Terry (voiced by Rachel House) and Counselor Jerry (voiced by Fortune Feimster) in “Soul” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

Pixar Animation Studios has long been the gold standard for groundbreaking and crowd-pleasing movie animation, with several Oscars and blockbuster films to prove it. Pixar launched in 1986, and was acquired by the Walt Disney Company in 2006. But it wasn’t until 2020 that Pixar released its first movie with an African American as the lead character. That movie is “Soul,” which does what Pixar does best: blend stunning visuals with sentimental, family-friendly messages. However, the movie isn’t quite the innovative cultural breakthrough that it’s hyped up to be.

“Soul” (directed by Pete Docter and co-directed by Kemp Powers) follows a lot of the same thematic tropes that are in a lot of Pixar movies: Someone has to cope with death and/or find a way back home. In order to reach that goal, the protagonist encounters someone who usually has an opposite personality. For any variety of reasons, the two opposite personalities are stuck together on a journey. And they spend most of the story bickering and/or trying to learn how to work together.

In “Soul,” the main protagonist is Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle-aged, aspiring jazz pianist in New York City who hasn’t been able to fulfil his dream of becoming a professional musician. Instead, to pay his bills, Joe has become a teacher of band music at a public middle school called M.S. 70, where almost all of the students in his class are less-than-talented at playing music. Joe isn’t particularly happy with how his life has turned out, but he hasn’t lost his passion for playing jazz. It’s a passion that almost no one else shares in his life.

Joe tells his students about the life-changing experience he had as a boy when his father took him to a nightclub to see jazz performed live for the first time. It was the first time that Joe understood the joy of turning a passion into something that can be shared with others. Joe describes to his students how he felt when he saw the jazz musicians expressing themselves in their performance: “I wanted to learn how to talk like that. That’s when I knew I was born to play.”

Joe then says to a student, “Connie knows what I mean. Right, Connie?” Connie (voiced by Cora Champommier) deadpans in response: “I’m 12.” This won’t be the last time Connie will be in the movie, since she represents whether or not Joe has made an impact on any of his students.

Joe, who is an only child, is somewhat of a disappointment to his widowed mother Libba (voiced by Phylicia Rashad), who owns a custom tailor shop. Libba has grown tired of seeing Joe in a series of dead-end, part-time jobs that don’t pay very well. Joe’s father was also an aspiring musician, but he gave up his music dreams because of the financial obligations of raising a family. Joe is a bachelor with no children, so it’s been easier for him to not feel as much pressure to get a full-time job that pays well.

One day, M.S. 70’s Principal Arroyo (voiced by Jeannie Tirado) tells Joe that the school would like to offer him a full-time job as the band teacher. However, Joe isn’t all that excited about the offer, because it means that he’ll have less time to pursue what he really wants to be: a professional musician playing in a real band. Privately, he thinks about whether or not he should accept the offer.

When Joe tells Libba about this job offer, she thinks he’s crazy not to take the offer right away. Libba reminds Joe that a full-time job comes with insurance benefits and a retirement plan, which are things that she thinks Joe needs to have now that he’s reached a certain age. Joe reluctantly agrees to take the school’s full-time job offer.

But then, something unexpected happens that changes his life when he gets a chance to become a professional musician. A former student of his named Lamont “Curley” Baker (voiced by Ahmir-Khalib Thompson, also known as Questlove) calls Joe and tells him that he’s now a drummer for the Dorothea Williams Quartet, a famous group that is in the city for a tour performance. Curley thanks Joe for his mentorship and excitedly mentions to Joe that the band’s regular pianist suddenly “skipped town” and can’t be found.

Curley says that Joe would be the perfect replacement for this pianist for the band’s show that will take place that evening at the Half Note, a popular jazz nightclub. Curley invites Joe to go to the nightclub for an audition. Curley says that if Dorothea Williams likes what she hears from Joe, then Joe could become the permanent pianist for the Dorothea Williams Quartet. Needless to say, Joe is ecstatic but also nervous.

Dorothea (voiced by Angela Bassett) is a hard-to-please taskmaster. And she’s not impressed that Joe has been working as a school teacher, because she thinks it means he isn’t talented enough to be a professional musician. But once Dorothea hears Joe play, she changes her mind and says he can perform with the band that night. She keeps cool about it and doesn’t want to lavish too much praise on Joe.

Joe is so excited about this big break that he calls people on his phone to tell them the good news, while he’s walking down various streets. Joe is so distracted that he doesn’t notice several things that could get him injured. He narrowly misses getting hit by a car when he walks into traffic. He avoids getting hurt by construction work happening on a street where he walks.

But a misfortune that Joe literally falls into is a deep and open manhole that he doesn’t notice while he’s talking on the phone. Joe wakes up in a purgatory-like environment where he finds out that he “died” from this fall. His soul and other souls (which look like ghostly blue blobs) are headed to a place called the Great Beyond, which is implied to be heaven.

However, Joe doesn’t want to accept this fate, and he runs away and tries to hide. What he really wants to do is go back to Earth, have his soul reunited with his body, and recover from his injuries in time to make it to the Dorothea Williams Quartet performance. He believes that this performance is his only shot at fulfilling his dream of becoming a professional musician.

Joe tries to hide in the purgatory, but he’s quickly discovered by spirit-like entities called counselors that look like two-dimensional, bisected figures. Several of the counselors (with male and female voices) are named Counselor Jerry. Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade voice the two Counselor Jerry characters that have the most interaction with Joe. Braga’s Counselor Jerry character is empathetic and patient. Ayoade’s Counselor Jerry character is wisecracking and neurotic. Other actors who are the voices of Counselor Jerry characters include Fortune Feimster, Wes Studi and Zenobia Shroff.

Joe finds out that he hasn’t died yet, but his body is in a “holding pattern,” and he’s in a place called the Great Before, also known as the You Seminar. It’s a place where each soul is numbered and assigned a unique personality before being sent to Earth to inhabit a body. In addition to personality traits, each soul must have a “spark,” in order to be ready to be sent to Earth. In the You Seminar, each soul is assigned a mentor to inspire that spark. (The word “spark” in the movie is another way of saying a person’s biggest passion in life.)

Joe already knows what his spark is (playing music), but through a series of events, he ends up becoming the mentor for a soul whose name/number is 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), who is an especially difficult soul because she doesn’t want to be live in anybody on Earth and she wants to stay where she is. She’s very stubborn and likes to cause a lot of mischief. (Technically, 22 could be interpreted as having no gender, but since a woman was chosen to voice the character, 22 will be referred to as “she” and “her” in this review.)

Joe finds out that 22 has had several mentors who tried and failed to help 22 find her spark. The mentors include Mahatma Ghandi, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, Marie Antoinette, Nicolaus Copernicus and Muhammad Ali. There’s a brief montage sequence that shows how 22 aggravated and disappointed all of her famous mentors. And 22 is so insufferable, cynical and bratty that even Mother Teresa ran out of patience with her.

And so, the rest of the movie is about these two souls who have different agendas and have to find a way to work together. One soul desperately wants to go back to Earth to reunite with his body, while the other soul desperately does not want to go to Earth to avoid inhabiting any body. There’s also a running joke in the film about a very nitpicky, uptight spirit named Terry (voiced by Rachel House), who works as an accountant in the purgatory and notices that a soul (Joe) is missing from the expected Great Beyond population. Terry goes on the hunt to find this missing soul.

“Soul” has a lot of metaphors not just about life after death but also about life on Earth. There’s a subplot about “lost souls” on Earth. And during Joe and 22’s time together, they encounter a soul who’s an aging hippie type named Moonwind (played by Graham Norton), who is the captain of a ship of souls.

What works very well in “Soul,” as is the case of almost every Pixar film, is how the film looks overall. When Joe describes the elation he felt the first time he discovered his passion for music, the screen lights up with an engaging vibrancy of sights and sounds. There are also some almost-psychedelic representations of what the You Seminar looks like that give “Soul” an immersive quality. The human characters look very lifelike. And it all adds up to a very memorable animated film.

“Soul” is not without flaws, however. The movie has a few plot holes that aren’t really explained. For example, there’s a scene in the movie where 22 tells Joe that souls without a body do not have the use of human senses, which is why 22 doesn’t know what it’s like to smell, taste or touch. However, it’s never explained why 22 (and other souls without bodies) have the senses of sight and hearing. Why bother saying that souls in this story cannot have human senses, when the souls can obviously see and hear?

Docter won an Oscar for the 2015 Pixar film “Inside Out,” another existential movie with a plot revolving around the concept that people are unique because of personalities and interests. “Soul” has lot of philosophies about what makes someone human and what a human being’s purpose is in life. Both movies can be enjoyed by people of different generations. However, the storyline of “Soul” is riskier and potentially more alienating.

“Soul” is not a religious movie, but it’s literally a spiritual movie. Its plot and characters are based on spiritual beliefs that when people die, their souls go to another place that can’t be seen by living humans, or souls could be stuck on Earth as “ghosts.” Therefore, what happens in “Soul” won’t have as much of an emotional impact on atheists or other people who believe that death is final and who think that there is no such thing as a soul that can leave a body.

There’s a reincarnation subplot to the “Soul” that isn’t as funny as it could have been, mainly because one of the characters is reincarnated as a cat. There have already been plenty of movies that have over-used the gimmick of a non-human animal that can talk and think like a human. The world has more than enough “talking animals” movies.

As for “Soul” being touted as a racial breakthrough in Pixar animation, the movie falls short of many expectations that Joe’s life as an African American musician would be in the movie more than it actually is. This part of Joe’s identity is only shown as “bookends,” in service of a story that’s really about how Joe can help redeem 22, so that she will want to become a fully formed person with a “spark.”

In fact, Joe’s quest to go back to becoming a living, breathing human being often takes a back seat to 22 and her shenanigans. Joe doesn’t become completely sidelined, since he’s still the main character who’s in almost every scene of the movie. But there are many moments in “Soul” where it feels like the filmmakers deliberately made 22 the scene stealer, while Joe passively reacts to whatever 22 does or wants.

These creative decisions are a bit problematic when Disney and Pixar seem to have a self-congratulatory attitude in promoting “Soul” as the first Pixar movie to celebrate African American culture. Well, it’s not exactly a celebration. It’s more of a polite acknowledgement, because for most of the movie, Joe isn’t even in his own body.

It should be noted that “Soul” was written by Docter (who is white), Powers (who is African American) and Mike Jones (who is white). The vast majority of people on the “Soul” creative team are also white, including producer Dana Murray and chief composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Jonathan “Jon” Batiste,” who is African American, did the jazz compositions for “Soul,” but not the overall music score. The music of “Soul” is perfectly fine, but it just seems a bit “off” that the filmmakers couldn’t be bothered to hire any of the numerous qualified African Americans to be the chief composers for this movie about an African American musician. Make of that what you will, but that’s why people say that representation matters.

And it seems like such a waste for “Soul” to not feature the singing talents of Foxx, who plays a musician but not a singer in this movie. (Foxx is a piano player in real life too.) He does a very good job in the role, as do the other “Soul” cast members. However, Joe is at times written as a sidekick to 22, when 22 should be the sidekick throughout the entire time that Joe and 22 are together. It isn’t until the last 20 minutes of “Soul” that the Joe character reclaims the spot as the central focus of the story.

“Soul” certainly meets Pixar’s high standards of a visually compelling film that tackles heavy emotional issues in an entertaining way. The movie has a lot of musing about the meaning of life and positive messages about self-acceptance. These themes in “Soul” are, for the most part, handled well for a movie whose target audience includes a lot of kids who are too young to have deep, philosophical debates. Just don’t expect “Soul” to have major representation of African American culture in the way that Pixar’s “Coco” celebrated Mexican culture.

Disney+ premiered “Soul” on December 25, 2020. The movies was released in cinemas in countries where Disney+ is not available.

Review: ‘Mr. Soul!,’ starring Harold C. Haizlip, Alvin Poussaint, Harry Belafonte, Loretta Long, Nikki Giovanni, Christopher Lukas and Gayle Wald

September 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ellis Haizlip (center) with members of the J.C. White Choir in “Mr. Soul!” (Photo by Alex Harsley/Shoes in the Bed Productions)

“Mr. Soul! ”

Directed by Melissa Haizlip

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Mr. Soul!” examines the history of Ellis Haizlip, the co-creator/host of the National Education Television (NET)/PBS variety series “Soul!” (which was on the air from 1968 to 1973), and interviews a group of African Americans and white people who are entertainers, current and former TV producers, artists, educators, authors and civil rights activists.

Culture Clash: “Soul!” was the first nationally televised U.S. variety series that gave a spotlight to African American culture, and a lot of the show’s content was considered edgy and controversial.

Culture Audience: “Mr. Soul!” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in African American culture or TV shows from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Ellis Haizlip and Amiri Baraka in “Mr. Soul!” (Photo by Chester Higgins/Shoes in the Bed Productions)

Before there was BET, before there was “Soul Train,” a publicly funded variety series called “Soul!” paved the way for nationally televised U.S. programming devoted to showcasing African American culture. “Soul!” was on the air from 1968 to 1973, but the excellent documentary “Mr. Soul!” tells the inside story of how “Soul!” co-creator/host Ellis Haizlip (who died in 1991, at the age of 61) had the vision to mastermind this type of programming, which was revolutionary at the time and continues to influence African American entertainment variety shows today.

Ellis Haizlip’s niece Melissa Haizlip skillfully directed this documentary, which has a treasure trove of archival footage and insightful commentary from a diverse array of people who were connected to the show in some way. Some of the documentary includes Ellis’ own correspondence, which is narrated in voiceover by actor Blair Underwood.

In watching the documentary, it’s clear that “Soul!” was definitely a product of its time. The show was conceived and born during the turbulent civil rights era of the late 1960s, when the U.S. was reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968, after John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X were also murdered earlier in the decade. The Black Power movement was a force to be reckoned with , and so it was only a matter of time before TV executives decided there was a need to give the movement a showcase on television.

As the documentary points out, although Ellis Haizlip was one of the co-creators of “Soul!,” he didn’t initially plan to be the on-camera star of the show, since he preferred to work behind the scenes. According to “Soul!” co-creator/producer Christopher Lukas, he and Ellis decided to start the show after Lukas kept hearing Ellis talk about “how lively the renaissance of the arts of black communities around the country” was and there should be a TV show it.

Dr. Harold C. Haizlip, a cousin of Ellis and a short-lived host of “Soul!,” confirms that Ellis’ vision was to “legitimate all of the variety of expressions of the arts,” particularly in the African American community. Nat King Cole and Harry Belafonte (who is interviewed in “Mr. Soul!”) had their own variety/talk shows, but those programs were aimed mainly at white audiences. Lukas says that Ellis didn’t want “Soul!” to be an African American version of “The Tonight Show,” but wanted “Soul!” to be “deeper, jazzier and more controversial” than the typical variety show on national television.

Of course, a TV show with this type of content can’t be at the mercy of advertisers, so public television was the best fit for “Soul!,” at a time when cable TV and the Internet didn’t exist. According to Lukas, the Ford Foundation quickly stepped up to fund “Soul!” as a New York City-based TV series on the nonprofit NET network, which was part of PBS. Lukas remembers that the title of “Soul!” was admittedly generic, but it was the only title that the producers could agree upon that best encompassed the spirit of the show.

Although there were other African American shows on U.S. public television that came before “Soul!” (such as “Black Journal,” “Like It Is,” and “Say Brother,” now titled “Basic Black”) these were primarily news and public-affairs programs. “Soul!” aimed to have to have more of a focus on arts and entertainment, while also including commentary about news, politics and other social issues, as they pertained to African Americans.

Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a world-renowned Harvard University professor and psychiatrist whose specialty is African American studies, was chosen as the first host of “Soul!” But his prestigious academic background didn’t translate well to him being a great TV personality, according to Poussaint and other people in the documentary. And so, Poussaint was asked to leave the show after only four episodes, according to Lukas.

The next host of “Soul!” was Harold Haizlip, who admits he wasn’t well-suited to be the show’s host either. At the time, he had a day job as headmaster for New Lincoln School, a New York City private school for kids in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Harold says that hosting “Soul!” was considered “radical” at the time, so he was slightly afraid that people from his highbrow academic world would find out and ostracize him. Harold didn’t have to worry about that for long, since he also parted ways with the show.

Lukas remembers that Ellis was initially reluctant to host “Soul!” because Ellis didn’t have a lot of on-camera experience. However, Ellis was eventually convinced to host “Soul!” when he figured out that, as the “face” of “Soul!,” it would give him more power to fulfill his vision for the show. Ellis started out as a very awkward host, but he eventually got the hang of it. And because Ellis did not have a highly academic persona, like the predecessor hosts, he probably came across as more “relatable” to the audience.

Several people, including Harold Haizlip and Lukas, mention that because Ellis was an openly gay man who knew what it was like to experience bigotry, that probably affected his willingness to be more open-minded to have guests on the show who were rejected by other TV shows. It’s noted many times in the documentary that if Ellis really liked a new artist, it didn’t matter if the artist had a hit or not, he wanted to champion the artist on the show. Several people mention that, unlike other TV programs that had lip syncing from music performers, “Soul!” always required that people perform live, giving the show a level of authenticity that other variety shows did not have.

Ashford & Simpson, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells, Al Green, Toni Morrison, Arsenio Hall Roberta Flack, Novella Nelson and Earth Wind & Fire were among the artists who got their first major TV breaks by appearing on “Soul!” In the documentary, Valerie Simpson says, “There would not be an Ashford & Simpson without ‘Soul!'” Simpson’s husband/musical partner Nicholas “Nick” Ashford says that Ellis believed in them before they believed in themselves. (Ashford was interviewed for the movie four months before he died in August 2011, according the documentary’s production notes.)

Ellis also didn’t limit his choices to artists who did “safe” material, since many of the guests were controversial. Lukas says that Ellis wanted to embrace the radicals and the religious conservatives in the African American community. Louis Farrakhan, who would become the leader of the Nation of Islam in 1977, was a guest on “Soul!” in 1971. Farrakhan, who is considered the leader of Black Muslims in America, has frequently come under fire for comments that are anti-Semitic, racist against white people and homophobic. It’s noted in the documentary that Ellis’ “Soul!” interview with Farrakhan was the first time that Farrakhan admitted on TV that he would try to be more open-minded when it came to accepting people who aren’t heterosexual.

The Last Poets, an all-African American male poetry group, was on “Soul!” multiple times. The group was controversial for frequently using the “n” word in its poetry lines and titles. When the Last Poets would perform on “Soul!,” it was completely uncensored, as it is in this documentary. Last Poets members Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan are among the documentary’s interviewees. Oyewole comments on the group’s frequent use of the “n” word in its art: “You’ve got to show how black you are by your actions.”

“Soul!” was not only very Afro-centric on camera, but the show was also very Afro-centric behind the scenes, since the majority of the show’s producers were African American women, according to the documentary. Former “Soul!” associate producers Anna Maria Horsford and Alice LaBrie are among those interviewed in the documentary. “Soul!” gave a great deal of airtime to black women co-hosting the show and doing on-camera interviews, when nationally televised U.S. primetime variety series, then and now, usually hire white men for these jobs.

In one episode, “Soul!” devoted the entire episode to African American female poets. “Soul!” also gave a big platform to activist/poet Nikki Giovanni, who appeared on the show numerous times and is interviewed in the documentary. Her 1971 exclusive interview with writer James Baldwin is considered one of the highlights of “Soul!’s” history. (Ellis and Baldwin initially didn’t along with each other, but the two men would eventually work together on “The Amen Corner” tour of the stage play.)

Loretta Long, who was an original “Soul!” co-host, remembers that the show gave her an opportunity to be on television at a time when television was limiting casting of African American women to mostly subservient or demeaning roles. Long says in the documentary about her on-camera opportunities at the time: “Television wasn’t an option for me, because I didn’t want to be Beulah. I didn’t want to be the maid.” She says of her first time on “Soul!”: “That first show, the atmosphere was electric!” Long would later go on to become one of the original stars of “Sesame Street.”

And long before Horsford found fame as an actress on sitcoms such as “Amen” and “The Wayans Bros.,” this former “Soul!” associate producer made several on-camera appearances on “Soul!” as an activist/poet. On a side note, the documentary includes late 1960s footage of actress Roxie Roker (Lenny Kravitz’s mother, who was most famous for co-starring on “The Jeffersons”) hosting the public-affairs/news program “Inside Bed-Stuy” It’s an example of the on-camera opportunities that public TV programs gave to African American women who were often shut out of other TV programs at the time.

Several people comment in the documentary that when African American guests came on “Soul!” (whose studio audience was also mostly African American), they showed a certain level of comfort that they didn’t have on other shows. When Grammy-winning legend Steve Wonder appeared on “Soul!” in 1972 to introduce his band Wonderlove, he didn’t seem to want to leave the stage. What was supposed to be a guest segment turned into an entire episode of Wonder performing.

Avant-garde jazz artist Rahsaan Roland Kirk was nowhere near as famous as Wonder, but he’s named in the documentary as an example of the type of “underground” African American artist who would never be able to get booked on any nationally televised primetime variety series at the time. The documentary includes footage of Kirk’s notorious 1972 appearance when he played three instruments at one time and ended the performance by ripping up a bridge chair on stage.

“Soul!” would later eventually expand its programming to include Latino issues and culture. Former “Soul!” host Felipe Luciano gets tearful in the documentary when he remembers how Ellis gave him his first opportunity to be a producer on the show. Luciano says that because of Ellis’ openness to include Latino culture in “Soul!,” Luciano was able to book and introducer Tito Puente on the show.

Some other notable appearances on “Soul!” included Sidney Poitier and Belafonte doing an interview together; Muhammad Ali discussing his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War; husband-and-wife actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee in one of their first TV appearances together; and interviews with activists Betty Shabazz, Stokely Carmichael and Kathleen Cleaver, who is interviewed in the documentary.

The documentary includes some family background information about Ellis (who grew up in the Washington, D.C., area), including mentioning that from an early age, he liked to direct performances and come up with creative ideas for shows. Ellis was the second child of four kids. He had an older sister named Doris, a younger sister named Marie and a younger brother named Lionel. Ellis was closest to Marie.

The family experienced a tragedy when Ellis’ beloved mother Sarah died when he was 17. His aunt Nellie than became like a surrogate mother to the kids. But Ellis’ father (Ellis Sr.), who’s described as very strict and religious, had a hard time accepting that Ellis was gay. Ellis’ cousin Harold gets emotional when he comments in the documentary about Ellis Sr.’s homophobia toward Ellis Jr.: “Even then, I knew Ellis was a very special person, and he needed a nourishing environment, rather than a critical one.”

Fortunately, Ellis found acceptance with his TV family at “Soul!” Before landing at “Soul!,” Ellis (a Howard University graduate) worked in theater while he was in college and eventually started working in television. “Soul!” came to an end when funding was cut off due to much of the controversial content.

As Harold comments about the show’s cancellation: “‘Soul!” was undiluted and absolutely in your face—and that was its value and also its undoing.” Former “Soul!” producer Luciano remembers being upset that Ellis was so calm and accepting about the cancellation, because he thought that Ellis would be more inclined to fight to keep the show on the air. A few days before the last episode of “Soul!” was filmed, another tragedy struck the Haizlip family. That tragedy won’t be revealed in this review, but it’s enough to say that it had a profound effect on Ellis, who continued to work for PBS for most of his career.

Other people interviewed in the documentary include Beth Ausbrooks and Mary Wilburn, two of Ellis’ childhood friends; actors Obba Babatunde and the late Novella Nelson; filmmakers Thomas Allen Harris, Louis Massiah and David Peck; writers Khephra Burns and Greg Tate; former “Soul!” production secretary Leslie Demus; former “Soul!” staff photographer Chester Higgins; dancers Carmen de Lavallade, , Sylvia Waters and Judith Jamison; choreographer George Faison; musicians Billy Taylor and Questlove; and activists Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez.

Also contributing their commentary are producer/director Stan Lathan; former National Black Theatre director Sade Lythcott; entertainer Melba Moore; former WNET executive/former National Urban League president Hugh Price, Rev. Cheryl Sanders, a niece of Ellis Haizlip; Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson; Harvard University professor Sarah Lewis; George Washington University professor Gayle Wald, author of “It’s Been Beautiful: Soul! and Black Power TV”; and “James Baldwin: A Biography” author David Leeming.

A lot of people who watch “Mr. Soul!” will find out many things about African American television that they didn’t know about before seeing this documentary. It’s why “Soul!” remains underrated and often overlooked when people talk about groundbreaking American television. But “Mr. Soul!” is a fitting and well-deserved tribute to “Soul!” and the visionary Ellis Haizlip, who took bold risks in bringing the show to life.

Shoes in the Bed Productions released “Mr. Soul!” in select U.S. cinemas on August 28, 2020.

2020 Academy Awards: Elton John, Cynthia Erivo, Idina Menzel, Randy Newman, Chrissy Metz will perform Oscar-nominated songs

January 23, 2020

The following is a press release from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and ABC:

Cynthia Erivo, Oscar winner Elton John, Idina Menzel, Chrissy Metz and Oscar winner Randy Newman will perform this year’s nominated songs at the 92nd Oscars ceremony, show producers Lynette Howell Taylor and Stephanie Allain announced today. “The Oscars” will air live, Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020, on ABC.

“We’re excited to have an incredible group of nominees and performers who will deliver one-of-a-kind music moments you will only see on the Oscars,” said Howell Taylor and Allain.

This year’s Original Song nominees and performers are as follows (in alphabetical order by song title):

· “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” from “Toy Story 4” – performed by Randy Newman; music and lyric by Randy Newman

· “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” from “Rocketman” – performed by Elton John; music by Elton John; lyric by Bernie Taupin

· “I’m Standing with You” from “Breakthrough” – performed by Chrissy Metz; music and lyric by Diane Warren

· “Into the Unknown” from “Frozen II” – performed by Idina Menzel and AURORA; music and lyric by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez

· “Stand Up” from “Harriet” – performed by Cynthia Erivo; music and lyric by Joshuah Brian Campbell and Cynthia Erivo

In addition to the five nominated song performances, the show will feature a special appearance by Questlove and a guest-conducted segment by Eímear Noone. Noone is the first woman to conduct during an Oscars telecast.

The producers will continue to announce talent joining the show in the coming weeks.

The 92nd Oscars will be held on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020, at the Dolby(R) Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center(R) in Hollywood and will be televised live on ABC at 8:00 p.m. EST/5:00 p.m. PST. “Oscars: Live on the Red Carpet” will air at 6:30 p.m. EST/3:30 p.m. PST. “The Oscars” also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

About The Academy

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a global community of more than 9,000 of the most accomplished artists, filmmakers and executives working in film. In addition to celebrating and recognizing excellence in filmmaking through the Oscars, the Academy supports a wide range of initiatives to promote the art and science of the movies, including public programming, educational outreach and the upcoming Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which is under construction in Los Angeles.

Follow The Academy (#Oscars) at www.oscars.org and on social media: Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

UPDATE: Billie Eilish and Janelle Monáe have been added to the lineup of performers. They will perform separately. The songs they will perform have not been announced.

In addition, these presenters have been announced for the ceremony: Mahershala Ali, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Zazie Beetz, Timothée Chalamet, Olivia Colman, James Corden, Penélope Cruz, Beanie Feldstein, Will Ferrell, Gal Gadot, Zack Gottsagen, Salma Hayek, Mindy Kaling, Diane Keaton, Regina King, Shia LaBeouf, Brie Larson, Spike Lee, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, George MacKay, Rami Malek, Steve Martin, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ray Romano, Anthony Ramos, Keanu Reeves, Maya Rudolph, Mark Ruffalo, Kelly Marie Tran, Sigourney Weaver, Kristen Wiig and Rebel Wilson.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Devil’s Pie – D’Angelo’

May 2, 2019

by Carla Hay

D’Angelo in "Devil's Pie - D'Angelo
D’Angelo in “Devil’s Pie – D’Angelo” (Photo by Carine Bijlsma)

“Devil’s Pie – D’Angelo”

Directed by Carine Bjilsma

Back in the mid-to-late ‘90s, the media singled out a select number of rising R&B artists and labeled them as part of a “neo-soul” movement—artists releasing music that had something more interesting to say than bump’n’grind of acts like Bobby Brown or Jodeci or safe crossover acts like Boyz II Men or Brandy. The so-called “neo-soul” artists included D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Maxwell, Angie Stone and Macy Gray. D’Angelo’s first album, 1995’s “Brown Sugar,” was a critical and commercial success. His follow-up was even bigger and remains his best-selling album. By the time D’Angelo’s Grammy-winning, chart-topping second album, “Voodoo,” was released in 2000, he was on a hot streak. And he became a bona fide sex symbol, thanks largely to his naked “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” video.

But then, fame, alcohol and drugs took their toll on D’Angelo (whose real name is Michael Eugene Archer), and he went on a very long hiatus. It took 14 years before his third album (2014’s “Black Messiah”) was released. D’Angelo went on a world tour in 2015 called “The Second Coming” in support of the album. The documentary “Devil’s Pie – D’Angelo” is a chronicle of that tour.

The concert scenes are very good, but the main reason why people want to see this film is to hear D’Angelo answer this question: “What really happened when you disappeared from the spotlight for all those years?” You have to sit through the expected footage of tour rehearsals and concert performances before “Devil’s Pie” director Carine Bjilsma gets to the heart of the matter about halfway through the movie. Watching the film, it’s apparent that it took a while for D’Angelo to open up to her on camera.

D’Angelo talks about his downward spiral, which included a serious car accident and arrest for DUI and marijuana possession in 2005. He was devastated by the deaths of his beloved grandmother Alberta, his Uncle Cece, and a close friend (not mentioned by name in the film but it’s widely believed to be MTV executive Fred Jordan), who all passed away within a short period of time of each other in the early 2000s. In 2010, D’Angelo was arrested again, this time for soliciting an undercover cop posing as a prostitute. He doesn’t talk about those arrests in the film, but he does admit that his addictions were the main reasons why he faded from the public eye.

“I started going down a dark path,” D’Angelo says in the movie. “I started drinking and getting high. It was tough to get out of it.” He also says that the car accident was a “second chance” at life, and he went to rehab three times before he could get his life back in order. However, D’Angelo says with his eyes tearing up, he can’t talk about certain things because “they’re too deep.”

One of D’Angelo’s personal issues is dealing with anxiety, according to him and people interviewed in the documentary. Questlove, who was a drummer in D’Angelo’s band on the “Voodoo” tour, says of his longtime friend: “It’s a struggle for him to do simple stuff, like leave his apartment and coming somewhere to play. He has fears about being the chosen one.”

Through flashback archival footage, which is shown at different parts of this non-chronological story, we see what this “chosen one” description is all about. Raised in a strict, religious family in Richmond, Virginia, he was the son of a Pentecostal minister, and expectations were high for D’Angelo from a very early age. There is footage of him performing in church.

He was considered a musical prodigy by people close to him (he won The Apollo’s amateur contest three times in a row at the age of 13), and there was a lot of pressure put on him to pursue a religion-related career as a minister or a gospel singer. But D’Angelo chose R&B music, much to the disapproval of many of his family members. One of the key influences on him was his feisty grandmother Alberta Cox, who encouraged him to do his own thing, while other people in his family warned him not to do the “devil’s music.” (This movie’s title come from the D’Angelo’s song “Devil’s Pie” from the “Voodoo” album. “Devil’s pie” is also a phrase that can be found in the Bible’s Revelation 13 chapter describing the apocalypse.)

As for how he feels about religion now, D’Angelo says that “God, not religion” feeds his soul. We see early on in the film that he still prays (there’s the expected prayer session with his band), and he says of this ritual: “When we pray at night, it’s not a game.”

In addition to showing how religion still impacts D’Angelo’s life, this movie has a lot of talk (mostly from Questlove) about D’Angelo’s soul. Questlove says of D’Angelo: “He’s Superman, but a Kryptonite-filled Clark Kent is trapped in his soul.” In another scene, Questlove has this to say about D’Angelo’s sex-symbol status that began to overshadow the music: “Part of his soul was being consumed.” And then Questlove offers this explanation for D’Angelo’s tormented soul: “Survivor’s guilt is what every black genius wrestles with.” If D’Angelo needs someone to write a book about his soul, he might want to ask Questlove to do it.

There’s also some rare archival footage of D’Angelo in the studio recording his “Voodoo” album, with Questlove and Q-Tip hanging out in the background. Questlove says that it took a while for him to get used to D’Angelo’s avant-garde musical style: “He was blatantly, beautifully disrespectful of rhythm structure.”

Feeling emotionally paralyzed by intense pressure is a recurring theme in the story of D’Angelo, as he tells of wasted recording sessions in the years that people were expecting him to release the follow-up to “Voodoo.” There are also scenes of him backstage, usually accompanied by his hovering tour manager Alan Leeds, where it looks like D’Angelo is silently coping with stage fright before the concert starts.

There are a few signs that D’Angelo’s long hiatus means that he’s still catching up to a lot of the technological changes that affect how artists get feedback about their shows. After a concert, instead of waiting for critics’ reviews, his manager Kevin Liles explains to D’Angelo that he can just check out social-media comments about the show. Liles then shows the singer some of the comments on his phone.

The documentary also shows some of the famous guests who visited backstage during the tour, including Busta Rhymes, Dave Chappelle and Bobby Seale. Chappelle is seen asking D’Angelo how it feels to be back, which is somewhat ironic, since Chappelle took his own break from showbiz in the 2000s, after freaking out over being famous, and then made a comeback in the following decade.

Because D’Angelo has a reputation for being unpredictable, there’s a sense that his handlers are always on edge that he might disappear or be very late for a public appearance. Instead, toward the end of the movie, D’Angelo’s keyboardist Cleo “Pookie” Sample is the one who has a major flake-out, by disappearing right before D’Angelo is supposed to hit the stage at the high-profile Montreux Jazz Festival. A frantic search ensues, but they don’t find him before showtime, and D’Angelo and the band have to go on without him. The missing keyboardist isn’t seen for the rest of the movie, which means the split was not a good one.

“Devil’s Pie” ends with a mention that D’Angelo is working on his fourth studio album, but—D’Angelo fans are used to hearing this by now—no one knows yet when it will be completed or released. In the meantime, this movie will likely end up being a direct-to-video release, since a documentary about a faded R&B star’s tour from several years ago isn’t going to sell a lot of movie tickets. “Devil’s Pie” is what it is—a niche documentary made in a conventional (but not bad) way that might not have much appeal outside of die-hard D’Angelo fans.

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