In the summer of 1969, a multicultural concert was held in New York. The festival featured a wide variety of artists destined to become part of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The meeting was both a time to celebrate the art of its time and a means to peacefully protest the atrocities in our country. A man landed on the moon while black communities suffered poverty and children in Vietnam were sent to die for their country. Sex, drugs, and melodies permeated the air amid a social revolution.
And while all of this can be said for the well-known Woodstock Rock Festival, I mean the more obscure Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place in Mount Morris Park on nine Sundays from June 29th to August 24th, 1969 if you’re wondering why you’re still never heard of a concert with headliners like Stevie Wonder, Sly & The Family Stone, The Temptations, Gladys Knight & The Pips, BB King, The Isley Brothers, Chuck Jackson, The 5th Dimension, and Nina Simone, then you are not alone . This is exactly what director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson examines in his documentary Summer of Soul (or if the revolution couldn’t be televised).
How could such a huge event – which spanned half a summer and attracted around 300,000 people – be forgotten? As the old saying goes, history is made by the winners – or in this case, those who have ruled our society. After all, many of us have only recently heard of the 1921 Tulsa massacre – in which a white mob attacked residents, homes and businesses in the predominantly black community known as Black Wall Street. Is there any real surprise that a historic event like the Harlem Cultural Festival was swept under the rug for almost 50 years?
The footage from “Black Woodstock” was shot by producer Hal Tulchin and then stored in a basement where it has remained unpublished for about 50 years to date. Questlove skillfully sews recordings of the concert along with a series of interviews with those in attendance. The event was more than just a musical anniversary. It was a celebration of black pride, with inspirational speeches by Reverend Jesse Jackson and a dynamic reading of To Be Young, Gifted and Black by Nina Simone that stole the show from my point of view.
Summer of Soul is a resonant, powerful and illuminating time machine full of emotions and ethnology. They come for the music and stay for history class.
Questlove’s documentary debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The film won both the audience award and the grand jury award for documentary films at the festival. It currently has 99% of critics on Rotten Tomatoes and a 98% audience rating. Metacritic also posts a must-see score of 96%. Well-edited and staged, it’s the best movie I’ve seen in the first half of 2021, and I hope it turns up in the conversation for the Oscars race for best documentary.
Summer of Soul (Or, if the Revolution couldn’t be televised) is distributed by Searchlight Pictures and is now streamed on Hulu.