Oscars for documentary films went to Questlove’s Summer of Soul, the feature documentary that tells the story of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, and The Queen of Basketball, a short about Lusia “Lucy” Harris, the only woman drafted into the NBA.
When Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson accepted the award, he started by acknowledging the other documentary nominees “for their powerful work,” and then broke down as he said “this is such a stunning moment for me right now.” He added that the documentary is “not just a 1969 story about marginalized people in Harlem. This is a story of—I’m sorry, I’m just overwhelmed right now.”
His acceptance came in the aftermath of a stunning and apparently completely unscripted moment during the ABC telecast.
The feature documentary award was presented by Chris Rock, who made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia, which prompted Will Smith to walk onto the stage and apparently hit Chris Rock in the face. Smith then returned to his seat and yelled at Chris Rock; while the audio was dropped, it was not censored in other countries, and Will Smith said, in part, “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth.”
Chris Rock seemed stunned, waiting a few moments before saying, “So we are here to give a documentary out—to give an Oscar out for best documentary.”
Earlier, The Queen of Basketball won the Oscar for documentary short, which was presented before the telecast actually began, though the acceptance speech was shown during the Oscars. Accepting the award, Director Ben Proudfoot said “if there’s anyone out there who doubts whether there’s an audience for female athletes, let this Academy Award be the answer.”
The nominees for the 94th Academy Awards included five documentary films and five documentary shorts, and you can watch nearly all of them right now, at home.
Four of the five feature docs are available to stream now, and the fifth will be on PBS March 28, thanks to Independent Lens.
Some are completely free—Showtime, for example, has made the documentary Attica free to watch—while others are on streaming services like Hulu, Paramount+, and Netflix.
Flee—an animated, autobiographical documentary—made history as the first film to be nominated for Best Animated Feature, best Documentary Feature, and Best International Feature Film.
Feature documentary nominees
Director: Jessica Kingdon
Nominated producers: Jessica Kingdon, Kira Simon-Kenndy and Nathan Truesdell
Ascension examines the contemporary “Chinese Dream” through staggering observations of labor, consumerism and wealth. In cinematically exploring the aspiration that drives today’s People’s Republic of China, the film plunges into universal paradoxes of economic progress.
Director: Stanley Nelson
Nominated producers: Stanley Nelson and Traci A. Curry
Survivors, observers, and expert government officials recount the 1971 uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility. The violent five-day standoff between mostly Black and Latino inmates and law enforcement gripped America then, and highlights the urgent, ongoing need for reform 50 years later.
Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Nominated producers: Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Monica Hellström, Signe Byrge Sørensen and Charlotte De La Gournerie
In Flee, the Grand Jury Prize winner at this year’s Sundance Festival, filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen tells a poignant story of belonging and the search for identity. Amin’s life has been defined by his past and a secret he’s kept for over 20 years. Forced to leave his home country of Afghanistan as a young child with his mother and siblings, Amin now grapples with how his past will affect his future in Denmark and the life he is building with his soon-to-be husband. Told brilliantly through the use of animation to protect his identity, Amin looks back over his life, opening up for the first time about his past, his trauma, the truth about his family, and his acceptance of his own sexuality.
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Director: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Nominated producers: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Joseph Patel, Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein
In his acclaimed debut as a filmmaker, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson presents this powerful and transporting documentary that’s part music film and part historical record, created around an epic event that celebrated Black history, culture and fashion. Over the course of six weeks in the summer of 1969, just one hundred miles south of Woodstock, The Harlem Cultural Festival was filmed in Mount Morris Park (now called Marcus Garvey Park). The footage was largely forgotten – until now. SUMMER OF SOUL shines a light on the importance of history to our spiritual well-being and stands as a testament to the healing power of music during times of unrest, both past and present. The film includes concert performances by music legends Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension and more.
Writing with Fire
Director: Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh
Nominated producers: Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh
In a male-dominated media landscape, the women journalists of India’s all-female Khabar Lahariya (“News Wave”) newspaper risk it all, including their own safety, to cover the country’s political, social, and local news from a women-powered perspective. From underground network to independent media empire—now with 10 million views on their YouTube site—they defy the odds to redefine power.
Of the 138 films that qualified for the feature documentary category, 15 were shortlisted—the five nominees and these films:
- Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry
- Faya Dayi
- The First Wave
- In the Same Breath
- The Rescue
- Simple as Water
- The Velvet Underground
Documentary Short Subject
Director: Matt Ogens
Nominated producers: Matt Ogens and Geoff McLean
Audible is a cinematic and immersive coming of age documentary following Maryland School for the Deaf high school athlete Amaree McKenstry and his close friends as they face the pressures of senior year and grappling with the realities of venturing off into the hearing world. Amaree and his teammates take out their frustrations on the football field as they battle to protect an unprecedented winning streak, while coming to terms with the tragic loss of a close friend. This is a story about kids who stand up to adversity. They face conflict, but approach the future with hope – shouting to the world that they exist and they matter.
Lead Me Home
Director: Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk
Nominated producers: Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk
In Lead Me Home, tents become bedrooms; trucks become washrooms; parks become kitchens. Love occurs, as does strife and violence. People make homes for themselves wherever they end up. When directors Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk set out to tackle the subject of homelessness, they had one goal: to humanize the experience, in whatever form that might take. The pair set out to depict the stories of people living on the street who, were it not for a vast set of unfortunate circumstances—addiction, mental illness, sexual abuse, homophobia, healthcare costs, disability—would be living no differently from those sleeping comfortably mere blocks or even just floors away. In the shadow of boundless real estate development proliferating in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle, Kos and Shenk filmed the daily lives of more than two dozen subjects over three years to provide a slice-of-life portrayal of what it’s like to experience homelessness in America today. Conceived as a two-part visual symphony shot in distinct production periods, the film opens a window into a parallel world hiding in plain sight and challenges the audience to feel the scale, scope and diversity of unsheltered America. Lead Me Home marks the first time Emmy winners Kos and Shenk have co-directed together and is a co-production of Netflix and Actual Films, produced by Bonni Cohen, Serin Marshall and Richard Berge.
Almost Famous: The Queen of Basketball
Director: Ben Proudfoot
Nominated producer: Ben Proudfoot
Lusia Harris led her team to three national championships, scored the first basket in women’s Olympic history and was officially drafted by the New Orleans Jazz in 1977.
Three Songs for Benazir
Director: Elizabeth Mirzaei and Gulistan Mirzaei
Nominated producers: Elizabeth Mirzaei and Gulistan Mirzaei
Newly married and living in a displacement camp, an Afghan man struggles to balance his dream of joining the national army with family responsibilities.
When We Were Bullies
Director: Jay Rosenblatt
Nominated producer: Jay Rosenblatt
When We Were Bullies begins with a mind boggling “coincidence” from 25 years ago which ultimately leads the filmmaker to track down his 5th grade class (and 5th grade teacher) to see what they remember of a bullying incident from 50 years ago. In a playful yet poignant way, he begins to understand his complicity and the bully in all of us.
In the Documentary Short Subject category, the Academy says 82 films qualified, and these were the other shortlisted films:
- A Broken House
- Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis
- Coded: The Hidden Love of J. C. Leyendecker
- Day of Rage
- The Facility
- Lynching Postcards: Token of a Great Day
- Sophie & the Baron
- Terror Contagion
This story was updated on March 27, 2022, after the Oscars were presented in the documentary categories.