Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
I grew up knowing of and listening to the music from Woodstock. I have seen the film numerous times and listened to the album of the same name. The music and significance are
etched in my mind.
But something else happened during the summer of 1969: the Harlem Cultural Festival, of which I was unaware until recently. On six consecutive weekends, organizers held concerts in Mount Morris (now Marcus Garvey) Park in Harlem — with an estimated 300,000 people attending. These concerts were recorded on film, but afterwards TV producer Hal Tulchin could find nobody interested in turning the film footage into a larger project, partly due to the popularity of Woodstock. So the films sat in a basement for 50 years.
They were eventually rediscovered, and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson made it his project to produce a documentary film from the 40+ hours of recorded footage. The award-winning documentary was released in 2021. The music includes blues, gospel, R&B, and funk with performances by Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, The Staple Singers, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, and many others.
The film features stunning visuals revealing vibrant fashion, the enormity of the audience, close-up footage of the performers, and the joy of the performers and attendees. It’s a vibrant celebration of Black Pride against the backdrop of the moon landing, the Vietnam War, the Nixon White House, and the assassinations of MLK and RFK the previous year.
I saw the movie at the Kentucky Theatre on Saturday, where it is showing once daily through
Thursday, April 14. My takeaway from this remarkable film is the story of these concerts and
the integral role music played in a revolutionary movement.
I was deeply moved by the film and disappointed that this recent history was not known by most folks like me for all these years. I highly recommend it — both to enjoy its music and acquaint yourself with history from a Black perspective.
If you can not get to the Kentucky Theater before the last showing on Thursday, you can stream the film free on Hulu (a free trial is available) or Disney+. It can be rented for $5.99 on Amazon Prime. It is well worth your time.