Searchlight Pictures / 20th Century Studios
From the funky groove and opening of the film’s first song, Stevie Wonder’s slinky jam on Isley’s Brothers’ It’s Your Thing, it’s obvious the new documentary Summer of Soul (… or when the revolution couldn’t be televised) will be packed with little seen and impactful live performances.
But watch a little longer, as Wonder sits behind a drum set to deliver a crackling drum solo. As he works on the kit, snippets from news reports and experts talk about the crucial political and social issues facing black people in 1969. And you realize you are seeing something more.
Made from footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival – an event so filled with stars of soul, R&B, blues and jazz that they called it the Black Woodstock – Summer of the soul is a breathtaking chronicle of black culture at a pivotal time.
A vast constellation of stars showed up at the festival, which drew more than 300,000 people in six free concerts held in the space now known as Marcus Garvey Park. The performer roster included Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, The Staples Singers, BB King, Ray Barretto, former Temptations frontman David Ruffin, The 5th Dimension, and more.
Just documenting their breathtaking live work would make for an incredible concert film. But Summer of the soul uses music as both inspiration and foundation, setting the stage for topics to speak on everything from the debate on non-violence in civil rights work to Harlem’s status as a cultural oasis for blacks.
Remix and recover black history
If this sounds like a master DJ’s remix job, that’s because it is. Summer of the soul is the debut film by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the acclaimed DJ, drummer, producer and conductor behind hip hop legends The Roots.
Questlove fills the film with historic musical moments. And, through new interviews, he lets musicians tell heartfelt stories about what brought them to the festival.
“We were constantly under attack because we weren’t, in quotes, ‘black enough’,” says Marilyn McCoo, a member of the velvety, all-black pop vocal group The 5th Dimension. She notes that fans of their hits, like “Up, Up and Away,” sometimes thought the band was white until they saw an album art or watched them perform live.
“Sometimes we were called the band Black with the white sound … we didn’t like it … because, how do you color a sound?” McCoo said, tearing herself apart as she watched footage of the band performing another hit, “Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In”.
“That was one of the reasons playing in Harlem was so important to us,” she adds, her voice cracking. “Because we wanted our people to know what we were doing.”
This kind of emotion often surfaces in Summer of the soul, as the camera captures people who attended the festival over 50 years ago, crying as they remember the power of seeing so many black people in one place, celebrating black culture.
“From what I could see, there were only black people,” says writer and producer Musa Jackson, who was a child when he attended the festival. “It was the first time I had seen so many of us… It was the ultimate black barbecue.”
The film lines up an impressive number of voices for new interviews, including Chris Rock, Sheila E., Lin-Manuel Miranda and her father, Luis Miranda. In 1969, the country had already suffered the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.; the film suggests that one of the reasons city officials supported the festival was in hopes the celebration would prevent riots on the anniversary of King’s murder.
The film also reflects significant changes in black culture and expression at this pivotal moment. Award-winning journalist and former NPR correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault spoke about the transition from using the word “nigger” to “black” to describe African Americans while working at The New York Times in 1969. When an editor changed the words of one of her stories from “black” to “nigger,” she responded with an 11-page memo that convinced publisher Abe Rosenthal to update the policy. from Journal.
One of the film’s most moving moments comes when gospel legends Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples team up to sing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”. The gospel song was a favorite of civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who had been assassinated a year earlier.
In a haunting sequence, the film alternates between a new interview with Reverend Jesse Jackson and footage from the festival where Jackson tells the crowd that Dr. King mentioned the song in his last words before being shot.
“Gospel was therapy for the stress and pressure of being black in America,” Reverend Al Sharpton said earlier in the film. “We didn’t go to a psychiatrist. We didn’t go to lie down on a couch. We didn’t know anything about therapists. But we did know Mahalia Jackson.”
In previously unseen and unclaimed sequences, an erasure
Director Hal Tulchin filmed all of the performances: six different free shows over six weeks. But the Woodstock Festival, which took place that same summer, completely eclipsed the Harlem Cultural Festival. When Tulchin tried to sell the images to a film or a television station, no one wanted them.
“The fact that 40 hours of these images were withheld from the public is living proof that revisionist history exists,” Questlove said, quoted in the film’s press materials. “I want to make sure black erasure doesn’t happen in my lifetime… and the film was an opportunity to work for this cause.”
This is why the work of Questlove and its producers to unearth the images and turn them into such an emotional, nostalgic and insightful story is so important.
He captured a pivotal moment in history, reminding the world of the resilience and power of black culture in the process.