Premiering at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and handily winning both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” a magnificent look at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival demonstrates what work, determination and most importantly, a celebration of music looks like.
Lasting over six consecutive weekends, the festival was held at Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) on or around the same time as the Woodstock Music Festival. Acts included Stevie Wonder, The 5th Dimension, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and Sly and the Family Stone; the documentary asks and answers why the festival wasn’t more widely recognized than it was.
Questlove has a real affinity for the material, which had been supposedly lost in a basement. Producer Hal Tulchin, who had gathered a video crew to film the entire event and had aired in hour-long segments on local television, was only too happy to turn over the rights to the footage.
Our journey starts through the eyes of our director, who reflects fondly on the content. However, the more important and impactful meaning behind using a reflection of the footage in this way is that we get to experience the emotion behind reliving an amazing moment of multiple cultures coming together to experience music.
However, this isn’t Questlove’s journey. You do feel the performer’s energy throughout. Rather, that is left to the participants and performers who were actually at the event 52 years ago as they reflect on the feelings and the meaning behind the event.
The greatest reference point for the Harlem Cultural Festival is that it celebrates life, a life of hardship, but one of pride and its politics reflect that a rather turbulent period of time affecting all of the U.S., but none greater than the African American population striving for economic equality and recognition. An interesting aspect of the documentary is that the then-mayor of New York City, John Lindsay was a huge supporter of economic equality. The city’s Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs Division was a sponsor of the event, as was Maxwell House Coffee.
Even with the legitimacy of the city and a major household brand name, the concert has largely been unseen until now, which is a shame because the footage that Questlove presented is spectacular. With the searing heat of the summer sun, the proximity of nearly 300,000 people (over the entire course of the event), there is one heart beating and dreaming as fans swoon over Stevie Wonder and listen to the political statements from Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone. No bigger act brought the house down, though, than Sly and the Family Stone.
I’m even getting emotional over the feeling of celebration and a push for equal rights, which speaks volumes about our modern society’s struggles. If anything, the documentary probably overuses its run time. Given the nature of the material, it is easy to understand why though – the importance of this gathering cannot be understated.
In the end, Questlove brings the story full circle – the reflection of a time nearly forgotten and the powerful emotions of being in both moments is something I won’t soon forget.
“Summer of Soul (Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” hits cinemas and Hulu on July 2nd. It is not to be missed.
- Summer of Soul