Twenty years later I received a message asking me to meet with my two future producers Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein about a Harlem cultural festival that was like a “Black Woodstock”. Immediately the music snob inside of me said, “I’ve never heard of that before.” So I looked it up on the internet. It’s not on the internet, so I was very skeptical. But when they finally showed me the footage, I immediately saw the setting for Sly and thought, “Oh God, this really happened.” For almost 50 years this was just in a basement and nobody cared about it. My stomach fell.
How did you go about turning six weeks of concert material into a two-hour documentary?
I transferred 40 hours of footage to my hard drive and kept it in my house on a 24 hour loop. I have a device so I can check it out anytime, in my living room, in my bedroom, in my bathroom. I also put it on my phone when I traveled. For five months this was all I watched and just made notes of whatever caught my eye. I looked for, “What are my first 10 minutes, what are my last 10 minutes?” When I saw Stevie Wonder play that drum solo, I knew it was my first 10 minutes. This is bullshit. Even though I know he was playing the drums, you don’t see it all the time.
Why was it so important to include the participants’ experiences?
It wasn’t as easy as people think. The festival was over 50 years ago, you are really looking for people in their late 50s to early 70s now, and Harlem is a different place. You have to go to the sidewalk because much of the neighborhood’s social fabric is community-oriented. One of our producers, Ashley Bembry-Kaintuck, even went to a swing dance class to meet a person [the former Black Panther Cyril “Bullwhip” Innis Jr.] we identified.
Musa Jackson becomes our anchor. He was one of the first to reply, but he told us he was only 5 years old when he went to the festival. He told us, “Look, this is my first memory in life. So I’ll just tell you everything I remember. “
Given that the festival was mostly older than Woodstock, why do you think it was forgotten so quickly?
History has considered it right that every last person who stood on this stage defines a generation today. Why is this not held in the same light? Why was it so easy to dispose of us? Instead, “Soul Train” was the cultural zeitgeist that was our guide as blacks. And so I will always ask myself: “How could this and ‘Soul Train’ advance potential creatives?”