Imagine a music festival that’s been lost to time. People may have some memories of it, but with a lack of much evidence beyond some photos and recollections, what if something huge happened, featuring the biggest R&B and Soul artists of the day and serving as a symbol of Black pride, only to leave almost no trace behind?
Back in 1969, more than 300,000 people attended the Harlem Cultural Festival. It was filmed, and then the footage sat in a basement for 50 years. Fortunately, for his directorial debut, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompon of The Roots crew has assembled this footage into a wonderful documentary, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). Thanks to his efforts, many of the performers, icons of the time, various notable figures, and attendees are all able to add their perspective on how that day reflected so much of Black history.
Alternating interview footage with concert clips, including lengthy segments of the various performances, Questlove makes a full spectacle out of an event that must have captured so much of the Black experience back in the day. Not being one to settle on just this fantastic footage, thanks to interviews and the use of even more imagery, Summer of Soul does what’s necessary to place this event within the context of history.
At this point in time, the Harlem Cultural Festival took place after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the Kennedys. Want to hear something even wilder? The concert happened on the same day as the moon landing. Yes, that momentous event for mankind was a huge deal, but as described by one of the attendees during the concert, there’s meaning to what was going on in Harlem that is just as important. There’s the thought of what other use the money spent on rockets could have gone to in regards to the people on this planet.
At a time of uncertainty for many in the country, this was a day where people of all cultures gathered out of a shared love for the music. While the added understanding of this moment in time keeps certain undercurrents in mind (racial tension has a way of being continually notable), there’s ultimately a celebration of talent taking place, benefiting people wanting to have a great time and feel seen.
Described by many as “The Black Woodstock,” the performers seen and heard from at this concert features no shortage of greats, including Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, B.B. King, and Mahalia Jackson & Mavis Staples performing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” together. It’s honestly an embarrassment of riches when it came to the talent on display. And that’s not all, Black civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson and New York City mayor John Lindsay (a white politician who was very supportive of the Black community) were on hand as well. This festival truly seemed like a spectacular experience to be a part of.
Given the racially turbulent times that surrounded this day, it’s great to see such a strong focus on how this whole thing worked out as some sort of dream come true. Even with the explanation that Black Panthers were hired to safeguard the festival (as the NYPD was heavily distrusted in that area), there’s still a great amount of effort to explain all the good times that were had. Many of the attendees are given a chance to provide endearing recollections of that day, with a screen featuring footage placed in front of them to enhance their memories and allow for genuine reactions.
As an aside, I am one who has long held onto 2006’s Dave Chappelle’s Block Party as a favorite. While on a much smaller scale, the Michel Gondry-directed documentary took a look at a moment in time where Chappelle, with all of this fame, decided to throw a free concert featuring some of the great hip-hop and R&B acts of the time (this included a prominently featured Questlove). The blend of music, comedy, and genuine excitement seen in the crowd made for a great watch.
Summer of Soul is an exceptionally better version of that film in terms of what we are able to witness. It shows how an art festival could deliver a message through the music, as well as from those attending, whether as one only looking to be entertained or as one wanting to make a statement. Regardless, this all happened while keeping things in order and without significant problems, and we’re lucky to be able to see it.
If there’s any problem, it’s the wonder as to how this footage remained in hibernation for several decades, while Woodstock ’69 has been prominently seen and well-known for ages. That answer partially answers itself, but Questlove has no answer for how this footage became unearthed. In the scheme of things, it matters little. What’s been described as “The ultimate Black BBQ” is just one of many fitting ways to look at this amazing rediscovery of the Harlem Cultural Festival, and Summer of Soul has all the pieces needed to make that experience truly sing. I can dig it.