Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Joseph Patel traces his success as a professional storyteller to the countless hours he spent as a UC Davis undergraduate at campus radio station KDVS.
“It’s where I learned how to form community. It’s where I learned how to tell stories, and where I discovered what I love to do,” Patel ’94 told a UC Davis audience earlier this month. “It’s a straight line from there to here.”
Summer of Soul won 70 awards (including the following) and received an additional 44 nominations, according to online film and TV database. IMDb.
- Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature
- Black Film Critics Circle for Best Documentary
- British Academy for Best Documentary
- Grammy for Best Music Film
- American Film Institute Special Award
Here was not only the stage of the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, where Patel was the guest of Chancellor Gary S. May for the first Chancellor’s Colloquium of the 2022-23 academic year.
Here, as Patel described during the hourlong colloquium, was also the recognition he’s received from the industry, the public and his immigrant parents for his work co-producing 2021’s Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.
Held on six Sundays that summer, the Harlem Cultural 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 free celebration of Black music and culture at Mount Morris Park (now called Marcus Garvey Park) in the New York City neighborhood.
“But it’s much more than just a concert film,” the chancellor said in introducing Patel. “Summer of Soul tells a powerful story about the struggles of the times, how music was a form of healing the Black community and how it was almost overlooked after all these years.”
Chancellor May said he rewatched the movie the night before to prepare for his interview with Patel — and found it as emotionally moving as the first time he saw it.
In a question-and-answer session, Renetta Garrison Tull, vice chancellor of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, asked about the infusion of emotion and death into the film, particularly the April 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee.
“My husband and I were watching it, and I felt like I was recoiling into the sofa, like my heart was collapsing at that moment,” Tull said.
Patel replied: “So, no lie — those are my two favorite questions I’ve ever gotten about this.”
The film features the Rev. Jesse Jackson talking on two occasions about King’s 1968 assassination — a year later, when Jackson led the Harlem Cultural Festival in prayer, and in 2020, when the filmmakers interviewed him. Jackson recalled some of King’s final words were instructions to musician Ben Branch for an event planned that night: “Be sure to play my favorite song, ‘My Precious Lord.’”
“He raised up and, Pow!” Jackson says. The film cuts to black, shows a black-and-white photo of the civil rights leader bleeding as he lay mortally wounded on the balcony of his motel, and then returns to the festival, where Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples are singing a stirring duet of the gospel song.
Patel said Jackson’s “Pow!” startled him and director Amir “Questlove” Thompson. “Every time we play that scene back, Amir recoils. Even to this day, he still is shocked by the suddenness of Jesse Jackson.”
Patel attributed the emotional power of the film in large part to guidance from cinematographer Shawn Peters, who asked him: “What do you want people to feel when they see the interviews?”
After two days of pondering, as Patel recalled, he had his answer: “We wanted to show that these people who held these memories … cherish them. It was part of their history, and now it’s going to be a part of everyone else’s history. We wanted people to feel that connection, and love and the revelation from these people.”
To help foster that connection, the filmmakers chose a simple green background for the interviews, he said. “The focus is on people telling these stories, and what you see in their eyes and in their faces when they’re telling these stories. Every time we had a key decision to make, we asked: What do we want people to feel in this moment? That’s what guided the storytelling.”
Winning an Oscar, Patel said, has opened doors for him to other stories. Among his current projects are two new documentaries — one directed by Thompson on Sly and the Family Stone, and second that Patel is directing about the late hip-hop producer J Dilla. He said he has another film collaboration with director Asif Kapadia and actor Idris Elba that “I can’t talk about.”
At home at KDVS
In his wide-ranging conversation with the chancellor, Patel returned often to talking about KDVS. He had visited the station a day earlier, talking with general manager Cate Hatcher and assistant general manager Jacob Ikuma, and browsing the legendary record collection in lower Freeborn Hall. It was his first time on campus in 20 years.
He recalled how, as a music-obsessed first-year student, he gravitated to a KDVS show hosted by Jeff “DJ Zen” Chang, now an award-winning author of books and articles on hip-hop, culture and race.
“Six or seven of us that would hang out at this show. We all got to know each other. We were all freshmen. And we discovered that we sort of liked similar music. We were curious about music in the same way.”
Chang and Patel would go on to create their own independent record label, SoleSides, with Josh “DJ Shadow” Davis ’95; Tom “Lyrics Born” Shimura; and Blackalicious duo Xavier “Chief Xcel” Mosley ’94 and the late DJ Timothy “Gift of Gab” Parker.
“When I talk to students today and younger people that I mentor, I always tell them to find your tribe,” Patel said. “I think it’s important to find the people that you like to work with, who will give you honest feedback on the things that you share with them. And I very quickly found my tribe at the station.”
Patel began writing for music magazines while he was still a student. Two years after graduating with a degree in economics, he interviewed members of The Roots, launching a lasting friendship with drummer Thompson.
In 2018, Patel learned that Thompson had been hired to direct his first movie. Patel said he initially turned down an invitation from entertainment company RadicalMedia to co-produce Summer of Love. He changed his mind after talking with Thompson about his motivations, and wound up serving as creative producer, helping the director in crafting the film.
“I think the guiding principle that he wanted in telling the story — and was looking for me to help him tell — was that Black history is American history. And this festival was emblematic of that.”
“And he wanted to tell a story that was centered in joy, because he felt so many Black stories are centered in trauma. And those two things, this festival, the footage, the music, it just felt like a really incredible opportunity. If we did it right, we thought we would might be able to make something special.”
LOVE FOR KDVS
In his conversation with the chancellor, Joseph Patel advocated for continuing support for radio station KDVS, the campus’s freeform radio station.
“KDVS is a very special place,” Patel said. “It has the most it has the largest reach of any college radio station in the country. It has the opportunity — with a little bit of investment and care and support — to become a world-class institution. I don't say that out of hyperbole. It really, really deserves love and support.”
“Thank you,” the chancellor replied. “We are loving it and support it.”
KDVS general manager Cate Hatcher and assistant general manager Jacob Ikuma said they were grateful for Patel’s continued belief in KDVS.
“As Joseph said during the colloquium, KDVS is a proud and welcoming home for the 'weirdos' of the world,” they wrote in an email. “Our community's passions fall outside the mainstream and are hard to come by anywhere else, so we're committed to maintaining this space and its history for generations of UC Davis students to come.”
With the pending demolition of Freeborn Hall, station managers and campus leaders are exploring options for a new location for KDVS, among them the north side of the building that also houses the Bike Barn.
“Currently the space is undergoing assessment with campus representatives to make sure the needs of the station can be met or appropriate accommodations be made,” said Greg Ortiz, business manager for the Associated Students of UC Davis.
Kathleen Holder is a content strategist in marketing and communications, College of Letters and Science, and former editor of UC Davis Magazine.