The year is 1969. Nixon’s in the White House, Neil Armstrong has landed on the Moon, Woodstock has attracted more than 350,000 rock and roll fans and protests against the US involvement in Vietnam continue. These are the stories that dominated American (and global) news cycles and continue to identify 1969 as a year of change. Woodstock’s ‘Three Days of Peace and Music’ was seen as the musical event for the anti-establishment, counterculture generation. Yet, 100 miles away, in Mount Morris Park, the community of Harlem gathered every weekend for six weeks to spark a little revolution and celebrate African-American music and culture.
Amir “Questlove” Thompson positively resurrects the exuberant atmosphere of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival in producing this powerful archival documentary, his directorial debut, Summer of Soul (…or when the revolution could not be televised). Captured by TV Veteran Hal Tulchin, this remarkably vibrant footage displays a wealth of talent. From Nina Simone in her prime to a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson to Sly and the Family Stone, Questlove has hit the mother lode in showcasing the numerous Black musical legends from the last century. Despite this illustrious line-up and Tulchin’s careful marketing of the event as the “Black Woodstock”, curiously this concert footage was never picked up by TV networks in the U.S. That is, until now.
Questlove has hit the mother lode in showcasing the numerous Black musical legends from the last century
“An artist’s duty is to reflect the times,” insists Nina Simone. Piecing together footage of such interviews with Simone, along with her recital of the poem Are You Ready Black People? and a mesmerising performance of To Be Young, Gifted and Black, Summer of Soul certainly reflects the political and racial tensions of 1960s America. Simone’s words are a celebration of Black identity, as well as a call-to-action. Her authority as the “High Priestess of Soul” evidently inspires the framing of this footage; Questlove deftly pairs music with protest, culture with politics and U.S. history with personal stories and anecdotes.
To communicate the unique personal perspective, Summer of Soul incorporates archive newsreels about contemporary politics amidst interviews with festival attendees and performers. Watching these various emotional responses, as the footage is revealed for the first time since its conception, is a joy in itself. One attendee, Musa Jackson, tearfully thanks the crew, “I knew I was not crazy. But now I know I’m not. And this is just confirmation of not only that, but how beautiful it was”.
This beauty radiates from these antiquated rushes, with the vibrancy of the clothes, staging and people. The amount of audience footage is astonishing, and it was a privilege to observe this crowd that showcases Harlem’s melting pot of styles and cultures. From the outrageous psychedelic patterns of 60s counterculture, the colourful dashikis of an emerging, Afrocentric ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement, to the urban militant style of the Black Panther Party, these fashion moments were symbolic of an ongoing cultural revolution at the time.
The amount of audience footage is astonishing, and it was a privilege to observe this crowd that showcases Harlem’s melting pot of styles and cultures
This documentary was unique in its ability to tell the story of the audience, as well as the performers. These scenes, full of the audience’s laughter, dance and exclaimed promises to ‘listen to all the beautiful Black voices’, were as poignant as Mahalia Jackson’s soulful exaltations or Reverend Jesse Jackson’s activist preaching. With an attendance of almost 300,000 people, the numbers rivalled Woodstock’s, and such a sizeable crowd was certainly the envy of this screening’s social-distanced audience.
Unlike its namesake, the “Black Woodstock” was free of charge, ensuring accessibility for an entire community. As evidenced by extensive audience footage, Tulchin understood this message of commonality. Questlove’s focused audience perspective advocates this message, and such spirited responses from Harlem’s community certainly surpassed musical appreciation – this event truly was the revolution that could not be televised.
Summer of Soul also portrays this festival at the centre of many significant events from U.S. history. The film is a time-capsule of the 1960s, illustrating the state of the Civil Rights Movement after Martin Luther King’s death in ‘68, touching on the US’ arms race with the USSR, and questioning the meaning behind the celebrated moon landing. This contextualisation is achieved through the musical performances, with their remarkable, clear-cut sound quality.
King’s memory is honoured with a spiritual performance of “My Precious Lord”, and his death is recounted in an alternative light, as we learn of his last words spoken to the festival’s leading saxophonist, Ben Branch. Meanwhile, interviews with the festival’s Black audience members expose the disparity of wealth amongst different racial and ethnic groups across America, with one man wittily remarking “Never mind the moon, let’s get some of that cash in Harlem” as The Staple Singers’ “It’s Been a Change” echoes in the background.
Interviews with the festival’s Black audience members expose the disparity of wealth amongst different racial and ethnic groups across America
As joint frontman of Hip-hop band The Roots, Questlove’s direction seems inspired by their hit single “You Got Me”, that was intended for an ‘unconscious’ population. This message is exhibited in its music video, which the other lead MC Black Thought describes: “To me, the image of people sprawled out, laying down in the streets represents the percentage of the population that is unconscious, not really walking around with their eyes open to what’s going on around them”.
During those 117 minutes, the cinema audience’s eyes were opened to this momentous cultural event, and this description of an unconscious population came to my mind. Questlove’s Summer of Soul serves as a reminder of all the archive footage forgotten by history, and all the significant cultural and political events that many have closed their eyes to. There is no doubt that this footage was purposefully neglected. The concert footage of Woodstock and Altamont, and their line-up of mostly white artists, were easily sold, whereas Tulchin’s 50 hours of rushes were left in a basement, gathering dust for over half a century. In light of such injustices behind the documentary’s delayed release, I urge you now to go and see this prolific film created with such care and such soul.