Tampa native who produced ‘Summer of Soul’ documentary talks about Oscars win

Robert Fyvolent accepted the award with his fellow filmmakers at Sunday’s Oscars in Los Angeles.
From left, Joseph Patel, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent in the press room at the Oscars on Sunday night.
From left, Joseph Patel, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent in the press room at the Oscars on Sunday night. [ JORDAN STRAUSS | Invision/AP ]
Published March 29, 2022|Updated March 29, 2022

When Will Smith smacked Chris Rock at the 94th Academy Awards on Sunday, Rock was presenting the award for Best Documentary (Feature).

The winner was Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson in his directorial debut. It was produced by Joseph Patel, David Dinerstein and Tampa native Robert Fyvolent, who all accepted the award with Thompson in the aftermath of the slap.

Related: 'Summer of Soul': Producer who grew up in Tampa talks new movie

Speaking by phone on Monday from Los Angeles, Fyvolent declined to comment on the Smith incident, preferring instead to celebrate the moment of the movie’s big win.

The film reveals the long-forgotten Harlem Cultural Festival, a concert series that took place over six weekends in the summer of 1969 at Mount Morris Park in New York City, the same summer as Woodstock. The festival, nicknamed “Black Woodstock,” was formed as a celebration of Black music and culture and featured performances by legends including Gladys Knight and the Pips, Stevie Wonder, and Sly and the Family Stone. It was filmed, but the footage had gone largely unseen for decades.

That footage was captured by Hal Tulchin, who shelved it for decades after failed efforts to get it produced. It was resurrected by Fyvolent and Dinerstein, who approached Tulchin in 2006 (Tulchin died in 2017). They tapped Thompson to direct the film because they are fans of his band The Roots and know him to be a good storyteller with a vast knowledge of music.

Fyvolent, who is also an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles, said after so many starts and stops with the film, and eventually getting the right team together, winning the Oscar was “unreal.”

“I say to people all the time, getting any movie made is a miracle, and then to have it be well-received is a miracle,” he said. “And to have it go to this level is a miracle on top of miracles. I’m just so grateful for it and just enjoying it.”

As a lawyer, he has worked on other films with Oscar-nominated people, but this is the first time Fyvolent has won an Academy Award.

Fyvolent and the team celebrated the win Sunday at the Governor’s Ball, the Oscars after-party at the Dolby Theatre, where the awards were held. Other attendees let them know that having an Oscar guaranteed them entry into any party, he said. It turned out to be true, and they ended up at the Vanity Fair party.

“It was star-studded and everyone was so loving and supportive of the film,” he said. “That was a lot of fun to be able to interact with people you wouldn’t normally ever have a chance to. You know, everyone from Billie Eilish to Alana Haim from Licorice Pizza ... and all the CODA guys, Troy (Kotsur). It was really a fun way to end the thing.”

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Summer of Soul also includes interviews with prominent entertainment figures including Rock and Lin-Manuel Miranda, as well as reminiscent segments with Knight and other people who were in attendance. It documents the cultural revolution that happened for Black people during that summer.

When it premiered in January 2021 at the virtual Sundance Film Festival, Summer of Soul won two documentary awards; the Audience Award and U.S. Grand Jury Prize. Since its nationwide premiere in theaters and on Hulu in July 2021, it has won numerous other awards for best documentary, including ones from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the Independent Spirit Awards and the Producers Guild of America.

Even with all the previous awards, Fyvolent couldn’t be sure they had the Oscar in the bag.

“There were formidable movies we were nominated against … all the other documentaries I think are really powerful,” he said. “It was a strong year for the documentary category.”

The film was distributed in theaters by Searchlight Pictures. It is streaming on Hulu as part of Disney General Entertainment’s Onyx Collective, a content brand dedicated to the work of creators of color and underrepresented stories. It’s also streaming on Disney+ and aired on ABC.

Fyvolent pointed out that one of the film’s themes is restoring history and giving the Harlem Cultural Festival its place in American history.

“One of the things that I’m really happy about it being recognized is that the movie is set in Harlem, but at its core, it’s a universal story,” he said. “I think people recognize that and I think after the pandemic and being quarantined and George Floyd happening during the quarantine, it was a cathartic movie for people.”

He said that it’s a joyous movie, so audiences can experience that joy, but also understand the film is “a look at where we were in 1969. I think it says something about where we are now.”

Fyvolent said he is working on a slate of new projects, including the documentary Really Good Rejects, which premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival and is being set up for distribution.