Sundance 2021 Awards

Sly Stone in Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul (2021)

Both Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul (. . . Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) and Siân Heder’s CODA premiered last week on the opening day of this year’s mostly virtual Sundance Film Festival. By the end of Tuesday night’s awards ceremony, hosted by Patton Oswalt, both had come out on top, winning over juries and audiences alike. Of the seventy-two features in the 2021 lineup, Summer of Soul is a solid critical favorite, while reviews of CODA have been mixed. Here, section by section, is a sampling of what critics have been saying about the winners of this year’s awards.

U.S. Documentary Competition

Over six consecutive weekends in the summer of 1969, thanks to the organizational chops of singer and concert producer Tony Lawrence and the in-person blessing of mayor John Lindsay, the Harlem Cultural Festival drew 300,000 to watch, listen, and dance to a lineup that the Stranger’s Charles Mudede finds almost overwhelming: “Nina Simone (the storm), Sly and the Family Stone (the radical racial and gender experiment), Stevie Wonder (the boy genius), B. B. King (the king), Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach (the Black modernists), Gladys Knight and the Pips (the perfection of slick), the Staple Singers (the grund of soul), Mahalia Jackson (the queen of heaven), and Hugh Masekela (the shumba of black Africa). This is what Black gold looks like.”

Hal Tulchin, who had been directing television commercials, variety specials, and game shows since the 1950s, threw together a crew manned with five portable video cameras to capture nearly forty hours of taped footage—all on spec. Tulchin was sure that one network or another would be eager to board a project that he was calling “the Black Woodstock,” referencing, of course, the festival happening on Max Yasgur’s farm about a hundred miles north. But no network bit, and the footage was hauled down to a basement, shelved, and forgotten for half a century.

Roots drummer Questlove, making his directorial debut, has intercut highlights with interviews with some of the performers and attendees, and if Summer of Soul, winner of both a grand jury prize and an audience award, “were nothing but a labor-of-love rescue mission from a soul-music scholar, it would still be a first-rate concert film,” writes Rolling Stone’s David Fear. But it’s “also a testament to the rich culture of late ’60s Harlem, in the era of Black power and beauty. And it’s a portrait of a moment of violence and anxiety, riots and volatility, inner-city drug epidemics and a divide created by the advocating for non-violent protests vs. any-means-necessary self-defense. Montage after montage demonstrates how the era was faced with ‘White America at its worst’ vs ‘neo-super-blackness.’ And, to use another quote from someone recalling one of those Sundays in the park, how ‘the concert was like a rose coming through cement.’”

Writing for Sight & Sound, Devika Girish picks out a “striking sequence” that “illustrates the film’s time capsule-like power. A dashiki-clad Reverend Jesse Jackson speaks of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death just a year ago, in 1968, after which Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples join forces to perform “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” the song King had requested for his mass right before he was assassinated. As the two women bring the audience to rapture, Staples recalls in voiceover how awed she was when Jackson asked her to help sing the song. A community mourns, a crowd exults, and the baton passes from one generation to the next—all in one scene.”

Natalia Almada has won this section’s directing award for Users, “a film about our intimate relationship with technology,” as she puts it to Kara Headley at Women and Hollywood. Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov puts it another way, calling Users “an expensive-looking widescreen video diary (shot on the RED Gemini), with fantastically detailed images and rich sound. Contrary to their normal usage (providing establishing shots), Users’s drone shots, especially the pulsing overhead ocean views, are uncharacteristically hypnotic, while a drive through a California wildfire is like Gerry with the danger stakes amped . . . The through line, explained in over-explicit voiceover grounded in Almada’s perspective as a new mother, is technology and how it feels to have it literally watching over us at every age from birth.”

Kristina Motwani and Rebecca Adorno have won the editing award for their work on Peter Nicks’s Homeroom, which completes what IndieWire’s David Ehrlich notes is a “loose trilogy of vérité documentaries about the public institutions of a single American city.” Nicks “has now effectively done for Oakland what The Wire did for Baltimore,” writes Ehrlich, “but without the safety net of a script. The tragedy of Homeroom, which drops us into a school year at Oakland High with the same degree of watchfulness that characterized Waiting Room and The Force, is that the chaos of real life is even more disruptive in this upbeat portrait of marginalized teenagers than it was in Nicks’s films about the intake procedures of the city’s underfunded hospital or the systemic violence of its overfunded police.”

A special jury award presented to emerging filmmakers goes to Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt for Cusp, which captures a year in the life of Autumn, Brittney, and Aaloni, three teens growing up in a small town in Texas. At Slant, Chuck Bowen finds that Cusp has “an aura of desolation that suggests a verité version” of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971). Bowen wouldn’t disagree with the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, who writes that “for all its sensitivity, respect, and evidence of mutual trust, Cusp feels wispy, as if the molding clay hasn’t found its shape.”

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