'Summer of Soul' Was Robbed of Its Moment at the Oscars

The 2021 documentary deserved our full attention when it won.

The makers of Summer of Soul at the Oscars
(Image credit: Future)

As I'm sure everyone is aware by now, Will Smith walked onstage at the Oscars and smacked Chris Rock across the face after Rock made a tasteless joke at the expense of Jada Pinkett Smith and her health condition, alopecia, which leads to hair loss. And while the sexist undertones of Rock's joke should not go unacknowledged, and Smith's act of violence was undeniably inappropriate, there is another injustice at play here: Summer of Soul, which won Best Documentary Feature immediately after the slap, was robbed of its much-deserved moment in Oscars history. 

Summer of Soul, directed by Ahmir Thompson (a.k.a. Grammy-winning artist Questlove), is about 1969's Harlem Cultural Festival, which was held in Mount Morris Park (now known as Marcus Garvey Park) and lasted six weeks. The event mostly consisted of concerts and included appearances by groundbreaking artists such as The Fifth Dimension, B.B. King, Nina Simone, and Stevie Wonder. It was held the same summer as Woodstock and is even referred to as the Black Woodstock, but has faded into obscurity in the years since.

It might seem bizarre that such a lengthy concert (it was six weeks! Woodstock was only three days!) featuring such famous acts would become such a little-known piece of music history, but this is a classic example of Black history being overshadowed by the white-dominant narrative of American history.

Summer of Soul aimed to set the record straight. Incorporating over 40 hours of original footage that sat untouched in a basement for over 50 years, the film delved into the legendary talent, cultural significance, and immense joy that took place during the festival. Furthermore, the film was a huge step in reclaiming Black peoples' place in rock and roll history—it is, after all, a genre that would not exist without Black talent. The likes of Elvis, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, and The Doors have acknowledged that.

All this to say: Summer of Soul is an important film that should be on everyone's radar, and on any other evening, the film's Oscar win would have brought much more attention to it. The film deserved to have its moment, and Questlove's touching speech and tribute to his parents deserved to have our full attention—but instead, the world kept its mind on Will Smith and Chris Rock and its eyes on Twitter (the top trending topic at the time: "WAS THAT REAL").

I'm all for a healthy dose of chaotic energy at an awards show, but ultimately, the Oscars are meant to be a night for honoring film, and the fact that a Black-directed, Black-culture-focused film won Best Documentary was a huge moment that belongs in history books.

Instead, we have a memory of a slap and the confusing silence that followed. 

Gabrielle Ulubay
Beauty Writer

Gabrielle Ulubay is a Beauty Writer at Marie Claire. She has also written about sexual wellness, politics, culture, and fashion at Marie Claire and at publications including The New York Times, HuffPost Personal, Bustle, Alma, Muskrat Magazine, O'Bheal, and elsewhere. Her personal essay in The New York Times' Modern Love column kickstarted her professional writing career in 2018, and that piece has since been printed in the 2019 revised edition of the Modern Love book. Having studied history, international relations, and film, she has made films on politics and gender equity in addition to writing about cinema for Film Ireland, University College Cork, and on her personal blog, gabrielleulubay.medium.com. Before working with Marie Claire, Gabrielle worked in local government, higher education, and sales, and has resided in four countries and counting. She has worked extensively in the e-commerce and sales spaces since 2020, and spent two years at Drizly, where she developed an expertise in finding the best, highest quality goods and experiences money can buy.

Deeply political, she believes that skincare, haircare, and sexual wellness are central tenets to one's overall health and fights for them to be taken seriously, especially for people of color. She also loves studying makeup as a means of artistic expression, drawing on her experience as an artist in her analysis of beauty trends. She's based in New York City, where she can be found watching movies or running her art business when she isn't writing. Find her on Twitter at @GabrielleUlubay or on Instagram at @gabrielle.ulubay, or follow her art at @suburban.graffiti.art