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‘Summer of Soul’ Review: Questlove’s Directorial Debut Captures the Legacy of Forgotten ‘Black Woodstock’

Sundance: Footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which attracted stars like Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone, has been buried for 50 years — until now.

Summer Of Soul (Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

“Summer Of Soul (Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

A pulsating panorama of “Black, beautiful, proud” people, “Summer of Soul (Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” is a joyous and welcome addition to the documentary subgenre of rock festivals. But this one, which marks the directorial debut of The Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, comes with a most unfortunate history: Its film reels were buried in a basement for 50 years, largely unseen, until now.

The “Questlove Jawn,” as it’s introduced in opening credits, covers the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, aka “The Black Woodstock.” The name stuck over the years not only because the concerts coincided with that other big rock festival upstate. The idea for the event flowered from the ashes of the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, as well as the Civil Rights movement, and was created to celebrate African-American music, culture and politics, and to promote Black pride and unity.

It wasn’t the first time. The initial Harlem Cultural Festival took place in 1967, when a thirtysomething Harlemite singer named Tony Lawrence was hired by the city’s Parks Department to arrange summer programming in the area. Over the following three summers, it evolved into an essential crossroads where Black music, culture, and politics met. It was a safe space where stars of the era, like the teenaged Stevie Wonder and the pop group the 5th Dimension, would perform some of the most popular songs in the country. Additionally, white politicians like New York City mayor John Lindsay, and Black civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson, all felt compelled to appear at the festival.

The concert series became an unparalleled success, with combined attendance numbers estimated at over 300,000 — nearly matching Woodstock’s numbers, where Jimi Hendrix was one of only a few Black musicians.

One hundred miles south, people of the African diaspora were building their own annual musical tradition. As was the case with Woodstock, a filmmaker — Hal Tulchin — captured the entirety of that year’s Harlem Cultural Festival, which featured a startling Pan-Africanist lineup that also included Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, B.B. King, the Staple Singers, Gladys Knight and the Pips, David Ruffin, Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, South African Hugh Masekela, Nigerian Babatunde Olatunji, Cuban Mongo Santamaría, Puerto Rican Ray Barretto, and many more. This showcased not only the diversity in the musicians, but also served as a representation of the diversity across Harlem: African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Africans, Jamaicans, Panamanians, and others, each bringing with them their own individual styles of music. It was a rousing history of Black music — at least until that year.

The comic vets Moms Mabley and Pigmeat Markham supplied the standup relief. And the crowds responded — looking at the performers on stage, often in awe, while dancing like no one was watching, laughing, crying, singing, and shouting.

Tulchin shopped the footage to several potential buyers, but was repeatedly told there was no interest. He became frustrated and stored the 40 hours of footage in his basement where it sat largely unseen for the next 50 years, keeping this singular event in American history lost – until now.

Enter Questlove, who uses Tulchin’s footage to reassemble the untold story of the 1969 edition. It was considered a pivotal year for Black America — “when the ‘Negro’ died and ‘Black’ was born,” a faceless voice states early in the film, which helps set the tone. That year, there was a metamorphosis, as the film capably explains, in a historical moment when the old guard of the Civil Rights movement and new Black Power movement shared the same stage in harmony. There were also torch-passing moments, like when gospel legend Mahalia Jackson invited her mentee Mavis Staples on stage to duet MLK’s favorite song, the iconic “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” less than three years before her death.

Seething through the entire documentary, against the backdrop of a racially turbulent 1960s, is an insistence on a new kind of racial pride and unity across the diaspora, which infuses “Summer” with an honesty and realism. It’s explained that attendees distrusted the NYPD to the point of hiring the Black Panthers to safeguard the festival, anticipating Black Lives Matter events decades down the line.

Questlove and editor Joshua L. Pearson lace together footage of stage performances with history lessons (Motown, gospel music, the evolution of Black style, the concept of a common struggle among Black people worldwide), tying it all together with endearing recollections of the single day in 1969 by those who were there. The result fans the flames of Black consciousness. It’s a demonstrated feeling of pride that represents Black salvation, most movingly evident when Nina Simone, the “High Priestess of Soul,” takes the stage and performs “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” — a love letter to the next generation and a kind of how-to manual. There would likely be no Afropunk Festival without the Harlem Cultural Festival.

Simone features in another highlight in the film, when she closes out her performance by reading the fiery poem, “Are You Ready, Black People?” — The Last Poets’ David Nelson’s spoken-word call-to-action — asking the crowd, “Are you ready to smash white things, to burn buildings? Are you ready to build black things?”

To that end, as the “music is the message” film indicates, the festival was seen by some as a political statement from Black and brown communities. “As activists, we were making a complete and total commitment,” said professor and activist Denise Oliver-Velez, who, at the time, was a member of Young Lords, a human rights organization whose aim was to fight for the empowerment and self-determination for Puerto Ricans, Latinos, and colonized people. “It was like going to war. And we were propelled on a wave of music.”

Additionally, Jesse Jackson’s hard-hitting sermons (“I am Black; I am beautiful; I am proud!”) were enthusiastically received, alongside traditional gospel choirs with songs of hope and self-affirmation.

The event was also filled with with a justifiable anger visible thorughout the footage. “I don’t care. Put the money into the community,” was the consensus answer when asked about the 1969 Moon Landing that occurred less than a month earlier. Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” captured this sentiment succinctly, and with wit, critiquing the US space program, by connecting its use of government funds to the marginalization of Black Americans.

But “Summer” is ultimately about the music. Many of the performances are top-notch, and a handful are just spectacular, none more than the sight of a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder, bursting with youthful vitality while going absolutely ballistic on drums. It’s a remarkable sight to behold, and it’s understandable why the drummer-turned-filmmaker chose to open his movie with that particular sequence.

But despite all the weightiness that hung over the event, no one could have predicted that the summer concert series would cease to exist after 1969, and that, unlike the upstate New York festival, the folk story of “Black Woodstock” would become a largely forgotten historical footnote. The country glorified Woodstock, and blacked out Harlem.

“As we all know, what’s happened to Black people, a lot of our history is forgotten. I mean, it’s not that the festival is an anomaly,” says one attendee in voiceover. “‘We hold these truths to be self-evident,’ that Black history is going to be erased,” said another. They both speak over a montage of black-and-white stills from the festival — crowds, faces, empty lots, the actual film reels in containers and not.

In a country where focus on Black history is relegated to a single month (which, coincidentally, is just around the corner), and films that tell stories about “hidden figures” of African descent are now starting to proliferate, the above sentiment hardly comes as a surprise.

Thanks to the historical recovery of Thompson’s efforts here, the 1969 festival’s place in history is due for further appreciation. It certainly set a precedent for large-scale African-American concerts as community nourishment, achievement and rejuvenation — recurring themes that are unmistakable in films followed the event, from 1972’s “Wattstax,” in Los Angeles to Dave Chappelle’s 2004 rousing “Block Party” (in which, maybe not so coincidentally, Questlove performed multiple times).

The movie’s chief flaw lies with an inability to assess Tulchin’s struggles to get the footage produced into a feature film, which led to its hibernation for 50 years. We also never learn how this material was unearthed decades down the line.

But these omissions seem to speak to an intention decision to foreground the unseen footage that celebrates Blackness in all its beauty and diversity. Pruned from 40 hours of material, the footage is loaded with casual joy and conviviality, while reveling in an outdoor event that drew massive crowds. It’s a welcome juxtaposition to the distressing footage of racial justice protests during the summer of 2020. Attendees of the festival subverted the pernicious stereotype that Black people cannot gather peacefully without incident. They embodied Sly and the Family Stone’s 1968 song, “Everyday People,” which the band performed at the festival.

Maybe Musa Jackson, otherwise known as the Ambassador of Harlem, humorously summed it all up early in the film, when he said, “I distinctly remember it smelled like Afro Sheen and chicken — the ultimate Black BBQ,” which is possibly its greatest, Blackest complement ever.

Grade: A-

“Summer of Soul (Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Documentary Competition section. It is currently seeking distribution.

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