Whether you were alive or not, the summer of ’69 has often been synonymous with the fabled Woodstock Music Festival, which took place in August 1969, in Bethel, New York. While that one attracted over 400,000 people, and ran over three days, there was something just as special – and crucially cultural – taking place in New York City, and this one ran on and off over two months, and with an accumulative 300,000 people: it was the Harlem Cultural Festival.
Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is the debut feature documentary from Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson, and puts us inside the outstandingly unique and progressive Harlem Cultural Festival, that originally took place in Mount Morris Park, now Marcus Garvey Park, from June to August in 1969. While the event that celebrated black history, culture, fashion and music was filmed at the time by Hal Tulchin, he had to hold onto the raw footage just waiting for a moment like this, even though he sadly passed away in 2017, and with much never seen before, it’s worth every moment – I can assure you.
For me, Summer of Soul is a true experience documentary, one to sit back, revel in and learn. This isn’t just down to the interviewees who were there that we hear stories from, when they were kids, but because of its unique, historical storytelling from moments we otherwise might have missed, which are riveting all the way through. With concert performances from the likes of The Fifth Dimension, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, The Staple Singers, Ray Baretto – and many more – it captures the authentic essence of the events, alongside the talent and movements of the era, placing us in that world, as if we were there rather than it being recreated.
These are tales of unity and celebration through exceptionally tough times for people of colour, where (for a brief example) even the NY Police seemingly couldn’t be trusted, as they had to use the Black Panthers for their own concert security. In truth, Questlove’s debut is an equal measure of looking back at these iconic artists with delight and an insightful socio-political documentary. While the interviews offer unique memories, it’s also smartly created because it gives us proof that while this footage always existed, it was difficult to get it out there, as if the event never happened. Like the recent, wider understanding of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, this could have been another case of modern American culture controlling black history but it’s a vast positive change that we get to see it now, and to witness how vital it was for people during those times.
Summer of Soul is as powerful and important as it was in 1969, and a magnificent, captivating real celebration of black music, history and culture unlike anything I’ve seen before, and it’ll enrich your understanding of the era and all of that is for the better. Let’s keep progressing, it’s beyond overdue and utterly essential for our collective futures.