“Summer of Soul” Adds to Long List of Sundance-Supported Best Documentary Oscar Winners

People watch from a boat and a dock as dolphins jump in the air. Mountains rise in the background.

Activists take on a mission to save the dolphins in The Cove.

By Vanessa Zimmer

For the first time in Sundance Institute history, two Festival films snagged the top two film categories at the Oscars: The heartwarming family drama CODA won Best Picture, and the true story of an underrecognized 1969 Black cultural festival, Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), captured the prize for Best Original Documentary.

It was a historic first win for a Festival film in the fiction feature category, although we’ve had some 20 nominees for Best Picture over the years. The sweetness was made all the sweeter this year by two additional trophies for CODA — Best Supporting Actor for Troy Kotsur and Best Adapted Screenplay for writer-director Siân Heder. What’s more, Kotsur’s recognition is only the second in the history of the Oscars for a deaf actor; castmate Marlee Matlin won back in 1986 for her performance in Children of a Lesser God.

But, did you know that the Institute and the Festival have quite a track record for documentaries earning Oscars — to the tune of 17 Best Documentary trophies since 1991? Well, now you do. And here’s the rundown.

Muhammed Ali was the underdog in the epic boxing match depicted in When We Were Kings.

63rd Annual Academy Awards

AMERICAN DREAM (1991 Sundance Film Festival) — Hormel reduces wages significantly at its plant in Austin, Minnesota, in the mid-’80s, a move that prompts the local meat-cutters’ union to strike. But the international union doesn’t back up the locals. “Their small town is tragically torn apart, scarring forever the intimate fraternity which constitutes American social life by pitting brother against brother, and friend against friend, in a no-win situation,” wrote programmer Geoffrey Gilmore in the Festival Program Guide. Available on AMC+, Doc Club, and Sundance Now.

64th Annual Academy Awards 

IN THE SHADOW OF THE STARS (1991 Sundance Film Festival) — Much like the backup singers in a Motown band, the choristers toil away as the peasants, the soldiers, the ladies-in-waiting of the grand opera, while the soloists, the stars, bask in the spotlight. This documentary examines the competitive world of opera through the eyes of the choristers in the San Francisco Opera. Available for rent on Amazon Prime Video.

69th Annual Academy Awards 

WHEN WE WERE KINGS (1996 Sundance Film Festival) — The Rumble in the Jungle, the 1974 showdown between heavyweight champion George Foreman and older underdog Muhammed Ali — and so named because it takes place in Zaire — is brought to life in this documentary. This is the event where fight promoter Don King made his mark.

A crowd of men in 1940s-style coats and clothing stand in front of a banner that says "There Cannot Be Real World Freedom Without Jewish Freedom."

Jewish refugees from the Holocaust seek a homeland in The Long Way Home.

70th Annual Academy Awards

THE LONG WAY HOME (1997 Sundance Film Festival) This is a powerful account of the post-World War II period when Jewish refugees who have survived the Holocaust find themselves looking for a place to go, a place to call their Jewish homeland. “From famous stories like the refugee ship Exodus to individual and personal recollections, The Long Way Home is a multilayered recital of endurance and persistence to overcome world indifference and antagonism,” wrote programmer Geoffrey Gilmore in the Festival Program Guide. Available on Tubi.

72nd Annual Academy Awards

ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER (1999 Sundance Documentary Film Grant) — This Sundance Institute–supported film tells the story of the Munich Summer Olympics in 1972, when a Palestinian terrorist group, Black September, took Israeli athletes hostage. Eleven Israelis died. Available on Tubi.

77th Annual Academy Awards 

BORN INTO BROTHELS (2004 Sundance Film Festival) — The children of the prostitutes in the poverty-stricken underbelly of Calcutta are the focus of this documentary. Co-director Zana Briski, a professional photographer, teaches the artistry of photography to them, to spark some hope for the future. Available on Crackle, Plex, and Tubi. 

Two emperor penguins with heads touching

March of the Penguins portrays the family inclinations of the emperor penguins.

78th Annual Academy Awards

MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (2005 Sundance Film Festival) — Morgan Freeman narrated the English version of this endearing tale of the annual ice-laden quest of the emperor penguins to find a monogamous mate and have a family. Writes Trevor Groth, in the Festival Program Guide: “In an accomplishment rivaling that of the penguins, director Luc Jacquet and his crew endured the Antarctic winter for 13 months with no access to sea or air transportation. Their bravery enabled them to document on film one of the greatest heroic sagas of all time.” Available on HBO Max.

79th Annual Academy Awards 

AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH (2006 Sundance Film Festival) — Former presidential candidate Al Gore travels the world, presenting a mesmerizing lecture on climate change and attempting to convince the world of the absolute necessity of reversing global warming. Available for rent on Amazon Prime Video.

81st Annual Academy Awards 

MAN ON WIRE (2008 Sundance Film Festival) — Frenchman Phillippe Petit plans an illegal tightrope excursion between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in 1974 New York City — and succeeds in dancing around on the wire, and crossing it eight times with no net, for almost an hour before his arrest. It was called the “artistic crime of the century.” Available on Crackle, Dox, Magnolia Selects, and Tubi.

The world of the backup singer is highlighted in 20 Feet from Stardom.

82nd Annual Academy Awards

THE COVE (2009 Sundance Film Festival) — An activist group led by famous dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry tries to expose an operation in Taiji, Japan, that traps dolphins and sells them to marine parks or slaughters them for meat. The group’s mission also uncovers the mercury poisoning of the seas. Available on Pluto and Tubi.

85th Annual Academy Awards

SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN (2012 Sundance Film Festival) — Detroit musician Rodriguez made two critically acclaimed albums in the 1970s, but his career went nowhere. When his music makes its way in bootleg form to South Africa some time later, two fans decide to find out what happened to the musician, rumored to have died, and the profits from his art. Available for rent on Amazon Prime Video.

86th Annual Academy Awards

20 FEET FROM STARDOM (2013 Sundance Film Festival) This documentary opens up the world of backup singers, primarily women, whose talent and art stand in the shadow of no one, although they never made the spotlight. Morgan Neville’s film reveals their backstories — and pays tribute to their role in rock music. Available on Doc Club and HBO Max.

87th Annual Academy Awards

CITIZENFOUR (2014 Sundance Documentary Film Grant) — Edward Snowden used the name CITIZENFOUR when contacting a source that he had evidence of illegal surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency and other agencies worldwide. This documentary consists of interviews with Snowden. Available on IMDb TV.

A bearded white man in a blue uniform shirt and safety glasses and an Asian man in a black Nike shirt smile at each other, in an apparent factory setting.

The cultural differences between American and Chinese workers came out in 2019’s American Factory.

89th Annual Academy Awards

O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA (2016 Sundance Film Festival) — This 7.5-hour, multiple-part film follows the rise of professional football star O.J. Simpson, the surreal slo-mo Bronco chase, his murder trial in the death of his ex-wife and friend, his controversial acquittal, and more.  

90th Annual Academy Awards

ICARUS (2017 Sundance Film Festival) — Director Bryan Fogel, with the help of Russian scientist Grigory Rodchenkov, uncovers a giant web of illegal doping in the world of international sports and the Olympics. Available on Netflix.

92nd Annual Academy Awards

AMERICAN FACTORY (2019 Sundance Film Festival) — A Chinese billionaire opens a factory in an abandoned General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio, in 2014. At first, the locals are ecstatic to have their jobs back. But then, we watch as the two cultures collide. “What results is an epic masterwork about the future of American labor and Chinese economic dominance, all within the confines of a factory in Ohio,” according to the Festival Program Guide. Available on Netflix.

94th Annual Academy Awards

SUMMER OF SOUL (…OR WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED)Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson unearthed footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival that had been sitting in a basement for 50 years and turned it into a “transporting documentary — part concert film, part historical record — about an epic event that radiated the wholesale reevaluation of Black history, culture, fashion, and music,” wrote programmer Shari Frilot in the Festival Program Guide. Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, and Mavis Staples were among the performers. Available on Hulu.

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