In the summer of 1969, Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, Jimi Hendrix rocked Woodstock and the Harlem Cultural Festival lit up Sunday afternoons in New York City with a 6-week-long explosion of Afrocentric sights, sounds and soul. Unfamiliar with the latter? Well, more than 300,000 attendees grooved in a city park to the tunes of Gladys Knight & the Pips, David Ruffin, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension, Mahalia Jackson, Pops Staples and The Staple Singers, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, Sly and The Family Stone, Hugh Masekela, Mongo Santamaria, Sonny Sharrock and so many more at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. It was one of the hippest summers in Harlem. Still don’t remember hearing about it? That’s probably because the more than 40 hours of never-before-seen footage of the event sat in a basement for 50 years. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s must-see directorial debut, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), tells the story of this incredible moment in Black history and finally gives this “Black consciousness revolution” the respect and recognition it deserves.
Harlem promoter Tony Lawrence partnered with the City of New York to transform his neighborhood cultural festival into a massive music event in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park). Maxwell House Coffee’s sponsorship dollars added star power to the event with a talent lineup that included some of the hottest soul, blues, gospel, jazz and Latin artists of the day – think Essence Festival with only A-list headliners. Veteran TV director/producer Hal Tulchin filmed the all-star performances, recording more than 40 hours of some of the best concert footage we have ever seen. Unfortunately, after several attempts to shop it, the tapes sat almost forgotten in a basement. All that changed in 2016, when producer Robert Fyvolent shared the footage with producer David Dinerstein and the two approached Questlove to join their team as the film’s director. Tulchin, who died in 2017, had always dreamed of the footage becoming a film. His dream was now about to come true. In 2019, work on Summer of Soul began in earnest and the growing team set about finding attendees and interviewing performers. Questlove – a self-proclaimed music nerd – watched the more than 40 hours of performances 6-7 times, letting his goosebumps dictate what to keep and what to cut. While the worldwide pandemic briefly delayed production, operations quickly resumed with the strictest COVID-19 protocols in place.
As a 5-time GRAMMY Award-winning founding member of The Roots, Questlove was the perfect choice to helm this documentary. A film buff and avid storyteller, the neophyte director tackled this project with the adroitness of a DJ extraordinaire. His thoughtfully selected performance and crowd footage interspersed with clips of civil unrest and snippets of speeches by iconic Black leaders edited with flawless transitions powerfully tells the story of the Summer of Soul. The healing and empowering role of music in the movement is present throughout the cultural festival documentary. It is portrayed as both a release for our rage and a panacea for our pain. One of the most poignant moments in the film surrounds Jesse Jackson’s riveting first-hand account of the moment Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. After Jesse speaks, gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, overcome with emotion, passes the mic to Mavis Staples for a little help singing a soul-stirring rendition of “Precious Lord.” Mavis’ guttural and gritty runs tap into the pain before Mahalia takes the microphone to belt out a fervent cry to the Lord for help. As the song concludes, their dueling ad-libs are more shouts of acclamation and bolstered determination rather than hopelessness and defeat. The power of gospel music then and now cannot be denied. Its triumphant battle hymns and melodic testimonies of overcoming have and always will be a cathartic balm for our weary souls. Many of the performances in the film – including Sonny Sharrock’s electrifying guitar solo and The 5th Dimension’s performance of their No. 1 hit “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” – also bear witness to the power of Black music to uplift and heal us.
The importance of fashion and style cannot be overstated. It is a ubiquitous expression of Black culture and pride. Anytime there is a shift in culture, music and fashion follow suit. In the film, we see the cultural paradigm shifting in living color. Kinky, coily, curly and wavy afros ruled the day. Dashikis, African prints, headwraps and wooden beads peppered the sea of butterfly collars, bell bottoms, ruffles and leather fringe vests indicating a change in how we were seeing ourselves and wanting to be seen. You will be transfixed by the host Tony Lawrence’s haberdashery. No matter the artist or genre of music, his outfits were perfectly in-tune. If it was Motown Day, he was suited and booted in double-breasted suits. If Latin performers were up, he wore ruffled bolero shirts in a variety of vibrant hues. His personal style was a microcosm for the fashions seen throughout.
The one thing we wish had changed over the last 50 years, sadly has not. In the 1960s, we gained civil rights, voting rights and fair housing but lost Malcom X, MLK and Fred Hampton. We marched in Selma but are still marching in Minneapolis. Questlove made Summer of Soul during the civil unrest and Black Lives Matter protests of the summers of 2019 and 2020 after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and too many others. The parallels between now and the summer of 1968 with protests and riots sparked by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the all-out assault on the Black Panther Party cannot be ignored. Questlove saw them and knew that others would, too. He would undoubtedly have heard H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe” and Keedron Bryant’s strident declaration “I Just Want To Live” and known that marrying our struggle for equality and respect to the performance footage was the right angle for the film.
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), A Questlove Jawn, owes us nothing. Questlove did the work and aced his directorial debut. Winning both the Grand Jury Award and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival is a testament to the incredible job he did in finally garnering the acclaim and respect this exceptional moment in Black excellence deserves. Certified Fresh with an impressive 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, the music event of the summer of 1969 is now the must-see music event of the summer of 2021.
Summer of Soul is now playing in theaters and on Hulu. Gather your crew and prepare to experience a range of emotions as you journey back in time. Be sure to post about Summer of Soul on social media using the hashtags #SummerOfSoulMovie and #OurStoriesNeverTold.