Film producer Joseph Patel ’94 has been getting a lot more invitations — to speak, give interviews and to collaborate — since winning an Oscar and a Grammy this spring for the documentary Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).
Talking with young filmmakers, Patel credits luck in part for his success. At the same time, he said, “One of the things I tell them is: I’m a big believer that good luck is a product of good design — you have to put yourself in a place to receive luck.”
Patel traces his preparation for Oscar fame to his UC Davis student days and to campus freeform radio station KDVS.
There he met his tribe — students who would gain hip-hop renown as DJ Shadow, The Gift of Gab, Chief Xcel and Lyrics Born, as well as music/culture writer Jeff Chang. As DJ Jazzbo, Patel embarked on an immersive education in music and social activism.
“I’d spend four nights a week at KDVS listening to records,” Patel said in an interview by video conference from his home in Brooklyn, New York. “I would take a stack of records into the listening room and just listen to records for six, seven hours a night.
“That’s how I learned so much about music in that time. Music then became my gateway to learn about other things. It’s how I learned about photography and design and literature and social issues and economic issues. I couldn’t get enough of it. And really that is the parallel education I had while I was a student at UC Davis.”
Those dual tracks would come together in his career in TV, film, digital and print journalism — particularly in the production of Summer of Soul, a documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.
Held on six Sundays that summer, the festival featured performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, B.B. King, Sly and the Family Stone, the 5th Dimension, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson and the Staple Singers, among many others. More than 300,000 people attended the celebration of Black music and culture at Mount Morris Park (now called Marcus Garvey Park) in the New York City neighborhood.
Summer of Soul, directed by musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, weaves together long-forgotten footage of the performances and the crowds, interviews with musicians and attendees, and archival film of historical events that defined the time — key among them the assassination a year earlier of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights and Black Power movements, and the July 1969 moon landing.
“We don’t remember the event the same way we do Woodstock,” Patel said. “It was important for us, if we were going to tell this story, we wanted to show American history from a perspective of Black Americans and show that Black history was American history.”
The resulting film, in addition to winning an Academy Award for Best Documentary (Feature), earned a Grammy for Best Music Film, and best documentary awards at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival (Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award), the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards and the British Academy Film Awards.
A start in music journalism
Storytelling has propelled Patel’s career since his days as a UC Davis undergraduate. As a first-year student, he began writing for a friend’s zine — interviewing members of bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and A Tribe Called Quest.
Patel came to UC Davis intending to study science; he did well in the prerequisite calculus course, but “I hated chemistry.” He switched his major his second year to economics and came close to double majoring in English. To the chagrin of his Indian immigrant parents, “everything just seemed to click” around writing, he said.
He soon was producing articles for alternative newspapers and underground hip-hop magazines.
From MTV to movies
Patel continued to write for magazines after graduating from UC Davis, but after nearly a decade grew tired of the freelance grind. In 2003, he took a writing job at MTV. After six months there, he began producing shows, among them the “My Block” hip-hop documentary series.
From 2009 to 2018, Patel worked overseeing content at Vice Media, The Fader and Vevo, the world’s largest music video platform, before leaving to return to TV and film production.
Patel joined the Summer of Soul team three years before the film’s July 2021 release.
A longtime friend of The Roots drummer Thompson, Patel was brought on as creative producer. “My specific role was working with Ahmir and figuring out day-to-day how we were going to make this movie,” Patel said. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever worked on, but also incredibly joyful and a lot of fun.”
Patel, who grew up in Fremont, California, and was born three years after the festival occurred, said he had never heard of the event before starting to make the movie.
“It was out of my comfort zone in terms of what I know musically, which I enjoyed. I think if it were in my comfort zone, I would think that I know everything already. … It stokes your curiosity and it stokes you to investigate and report and look for things that you don’t know. I think it was the same for Ahmir, and I think the film is better for it.”
Patel is working on two new projects — joining forces with Thompson again on a Sly and the Family Stone documentary, and with journalist/author Vicky Tobak on a film based on her book and exhibition Contact High: A Visual History of Hip Hop.
Other projects are on the horizon. “The thing about winning an Oscar is people want to work with you,” Patel said. “It’s a great feeling.”