So many things happened in the summer of 1969. Nixon pulled troops out of Vietnam, the gay community rioted at Stonewall, the United States landed on the moon, boxing champion Muhammad Ali was convicted of evading the draft, Charles Manson carried out his murderous plot, and protest music played at Woodstock, to name a few. From June 29 to August 24, there was another event that brought over 300,000 people, the majority of them Black, to a park in Harlem. A summer concert series, known as the Harlem Cultural Festival, brought droves of Black people to Mount Morris Park in a celebration that embraced everything good in the Black community. It was free to all, had some of the best performers, embraced Black culture, and it was forgotten.
This year at Sundance, it was a delight and a pleasure to see the documentary, Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, it is truly a feature to behold. There is so much love, respect, and admiration for the music, the community, and the culture in this documentary. In his directorial debut, Thompson has created the best Black history presentation I have seen in a while. What I thought would be a beginning-to-end run of the music festival turned out to be a culmination of music, history, and an outstandingly researched and navigated documentary. The film gave me insight into how people were feeling in the summer of 1969, and it is a feeling the Black community is reliving right now. This film could not come at a better time.
The editing in this film is beautiful. It flows with precision and amplifies the emotional gravitas. The footage of the festival weaves in and out of history like a creative and cool music history lesson. Editor Joshua L. Pearson shows the audience not only footage of the festival but also footage from some of history’s most powerful moments layered with amazing sound. Black history is told and recreated through the lens of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Summer of Soul shows the change in style and music and shows the cultural revolution that took place. It’s a rare experience to be able to see all of this unfold amidst musical performances.
While documentaries can hardly be praised for their acting, the interviews in Summer of Soul are well done. The pure reactions of artists seeing themselves perform over fifty years ago on that stage in Harlem was emotional. They got teary-eyed, so I got teary-eyed. Some of these folks I have never heard of, but they are still alive and well and getting a chance to talk about their musical journey and what music means to them. Music is such a big part of the African American culture and to see it highlighted on screen in an educational and entertaining way is one of the reasons people should see this documentary.
The music in this film is mesmerizing. I wish I could attend a music festival with acts like that. The music shows the range of Black artists, spanning across genres. Artists featured included favorites like Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, David Ruffin, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, and Nina Simone. It was a true celebration of African American music and culture and promoted Black pride and unity. Music is the soundtrack, the protagonist, and the setting. Music is highlighted as a truly universal language. There were a few groups in this film I’d never heard of, but you can be sure I downloaded some oldies but goodies by the end of the movie.
The themes of this film are far more important than I anticipated going in. What you see when you look at Summer of Soul are highlights of what is important to the African American community. The audience at the Harlem Cultural Festival was full of Black people coming together. We weren’t the minority in this park at that time. All ages were present. Families, friends, colleagues, strangers, neighbors, were all together dancing, smiling, and laughing. Community encompassed more than just the people who lived on the same block. It was a highlight of fellowship and a sense of belonging. It was widely vibrant and beautiful to see. As one attendee said in the film, “It smelt like Afro-sheen and chicken.” You may laugh, but it sure does bring about an image of happiness, beautiful memories, and a lifestyle all our own. People wanted to be in this moment so much, they resorted to sitting in the trees. Food vendors lined the outside of the park right next to someone’s momma frying chicken and collard greens. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?
Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) shows us this epic event that happened. It’s emotional knowing something so amazing happened, and this is the first time so many are hearing about it. It’s such a positive moment to associate with Black people. Why didn’t we get the chance to add it to history until now? The Harlem Cultural Festival was held at the right time in the right place. I think now, it is being shown at a crucial time in history when tensions are high and positivity is needed.
Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) made its debut at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and will screen again on January 30th. For tickets, go to the festival website here.