For six-weeks in the hot summer of 1969, Harlem’s Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) was a hub of music and community. Families and neighbours in the predominantly Black neighbourhood filled the park for the Harlem Cultural Festival, a joyful music celebration that featured a who’s who of musical artists, comedians and activists. Everyone from Steve Wonder to Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone to the 5th Dimension, Ray Barretto to Gladys Knight and the Pips, David Ruffin to Jesse Jackson and many more graced the stage. Although it was 100 miles south of Woodstock, which took place that same summer, and was filmed by Hal Tulchin, the festival never received the respect it deserved. Instead, the footage was tucked away in a basement—unseen for 50 years.
In his jubilant and mesmerizing directorial debut Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), Ahmir “Questlove” Thomson constructs a compelling exploration of how such an iconic event got swept under the rug of history. Using Tulchin’s footage as a canvas, Questlove weaves together a rich tapestry of culture, race, politics, and Black pride. Setting the stage early, by juxtaposing The Chamber Brother’s performance of their hit “Uptown” with the history of Harlem in the ’60s, the documentary captures the vibrancy of a community full of diversity and culture. It was also one where, due historical injustice and the recent assassinations of Civil Rights figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, a lack of trust in government and institutions like policing, was at a high.
Not that these institutions did much to mend those broken fences of trust. Thomson’s film notes that the police originally had no interest in working the festival, so the Black Panthers had to step in to provide security. Though the police changed their tune at the last minute and showed up to the event, it was one of the many obstacles festival organizer, Tony Lawrence, had to endure. A singer with a knack for schmoozing politicians, Lawrence was hired by the city’s Parks Department to organize the area’s summer programming back in 1967. After years of planning with a minuscule budget, and getting individuals like New York City Mayor John Lindsay onboard—Lindsay was one of the few Republican officials who spoke up in favour of supporting Black and Hispanic communities—the Harlem Cultural Festival was born and surpassed all expectations.
Considering the musical lineup, it is hard to imagine the festival as anything other than a success. However, as the racial backdrop that surrounds the film frequently reminds the viewer, Black art was not valued like its white counterparts. Every aspect of society was celebrated through a white lens, including events like the moon landing and Woodstock. Even the artists of Motown were not immune—they had to adhere to a white-approved aesthetic in how they dressed and performed on stage. Which is why the Harlem Cultural Festival was such an important event for both the performers and the attendees.
From an artist’s standpoint, the festival offered the rare opportunity to not only perform for a predominantly Black audience, but to also be accepted by their own people. As members of the 5th Dimension remark at one point in the film, musical styles were segregated in the industry, so their brand of pop music was either deemed too white or not white enough. However, there is no colour in sound. The festival reminded people that Black music was not a monolith, it was gospel, soul, R&B, jazz, and everything in between. The film reinforces the message of being proud of one’s Blackness and the various forms it takes in music and in everyday life.
It is the sense of empowerment combined with the sensational music that makes Summer of Soul resonate with viewers. While music fans will salivate over the number of great performances shown, those less musically inclined will have a blast as well as there is something here for everyone’s taste. Since Harlem was a melting pot of culture, the concert footage spans genres, influences and geography. Thomson shows that African artists such as Hugh Masekela and Babatunde Olatunji and Cuban artist Mongo Santamaría, were embraced with the same sense of adoration as the likes of B.B. King received. In watching the performances, you cannot help but shake your head at the gatekeepers of history who didn’t consider this cultural event worthy of preservation, like they did Woodstock.
Summer of Soul is a powerful reclaiming of a history lost. One instantly feels as if you are experiencing something magical and transcendent when watching. In drawing numerous parallels to today’s racial reckoning, the film is a necessary reminder of both the ongoing struggle for equality and the perseverance of a community. The film’s sweet music and rich retelling of history provides nourishment to the soul.