It was like a separate world. In the summer of 1969 mankind went to the moon, but many of the concertgoers who attended the Harlem Cultural Festival in Mount Morris Park (now known as Marcus Garvey Park) couldn’t care less. Going to the moon was something the white man did and the money could be better spent in Harlem, they argued. The festival became a phenomenal event, attended by huge crowds and featuring some of the greatest musicians around, but it still fell in the shadow of Woodstock that began a few weeks later in a different part of New York State.
Started by a nightclub singer
The festival lasted for six weeks on Sunday afternoons, and was started by a nightclub singer called Tony Lawrence. Since Harlem’s reputation was marked by violence at the time, the NYPD had no interest in providing security, so the Black Panthers had to do their job. Among the performers were now legendary artists like Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson. Jesse Jackson spoke at the event and Mayor John Lindsay made an appearance.
In subsequent interviews, TV producer Hal Tulchin, who filmed the whole thing each Sunday, has said he knew the footage would be valuable one day. But in 1969, nobody in television cared about Black culture. As this film shows, they missed out.
A daunting task
50 years the tapes sat in the basement until producer Robert Fyvolent bought the rights from Tulchin. The job to turn all this material into a great documentary went to Ahmir ”Questlove” Thompson, best known as the frontman for The Roots, Jimmy Fallon’s in-house band on The Tonight Show. But Questlove is much more than that, having served as a producer, music director and author, experienced in projects for the stage, screen and television. Making his directing debut with this documentary was a daunting task, but his vision is clear right from the start. He understood the value of the festival and why it was important to educate us about it.
On the surface, it’s a wonderful opportunity to see all these artists in a fresh light. It’s a treat to watch a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder play the drums, Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson sing a powerful gospel duet, Temptations singer David Ruffin do ”My Girl” and Nina Simone perform ”To Be Young, Gifted and Black” with great conviction. Several music numbers are accompanied in the film by the performers watching them again now for the first time in decades, sharing their emotions with us; there’s also a striking range among the artists, truly a cultural festival and not just a rock show.
There’s a lot more than concert footage here. Questlove makes sure to show us the audience, those clips frequently blending with the performances, because it is just as much a story about the people who attended the festival that summer and what their lives looked like in 1969. This was a time, we learn, when ”Negro” was starting to be replaced with ”Black” and there was a newfound pride; along with the violence that African Americans faced, that’s one of several aspects in the film that feel familiar to modern audiences and the discussions we’re having now. Questlove also brings home the point that the festival was inclusive, with Lindsay’s appearance and bands that had white members, making an impact on skeptical audiences.
As a filmmaker, Questlove pushes all the right buttons emotionally, finds the cultural nuggets that make us see ourselves in the past and takes us through the festival in a thoroughly entertaining and enlightening way, deftly avoiding dead spots.
Summer of Soul 2021-U.S. 117 min. Color. Produced by David Dinerstein, Robert Fyvolent, Joseph Patel. Directed by Ahmir ”Questlove” Thompson.
Trivia: Full title onscreen: Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). Co-executive produced by Questlove and Davis Guggenheim. Among those interviewed (apart from previously named performers): Lin-Manuel Miranda, Chris Rock, Al Sharpton.
Oscar: Best Documentary Feature. BAFTA: Best Documentary.
Last word: “If anything, it was an embarrassment of riches. It was too much. I kept this on a 24-hour loop for about six months straight. Slept to it. Traveled to it. It was the only thing I consumed. I didn’t watch any movies, television shows. Nothing. If something hit me, I wanted to get it organically. While the master reel was being reprocessed and digitized – which took like five months – anything interesting I saw, I noted. When I felt that I had enough goosebump moments, I curated it like I curate my DJ sets or like I curate a show. I work backward. Always start with the ending first, and then work my way to the front.” (Questlove, Pitchfork)