Directed by musician Ahmir “Questlove,” documentary film, ‘Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution could not be televised)’ is about the Harlem Cultural Festival held in the summer of 1969. The film brings together history, culture, and politics, all tied through music that defined the contemporary times for Black communities fighting for civil rights. Having already won numerous accolades, including awards at Sundance film festival and nominations at the Oscars and the Grammy, ‘Summer of Soul’ is a fascinating watch about a crucial point in American history.
The film begins with video recordings from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which was held over six weekends during the same summer that the Woodstock music festival was held. However, despite the entire festival being filmed, it was never shown or broadcast anywhere, and the film claims that the tapes just lay around somewhere in a basement for the next fifty years. Over the next hour and fifty minutes, “Soul of Summer” presents footage from the festival, showing performances by numerous acclaimed artists and musicians, including B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, The 5th Dimension, Mahalia Jackson, and so on. Along with the footage from the festival, there are also interviews of artists who performed, individuals who were present in the audience, and journalists who wrote about it. The film traces the coming together of culture and music with the joining of Afro, Cuban, and Latin American music with the Black American music traditions and also the conjoining politics of freedom rights and black pride, which served as the background to everything cultural at this time in history.
The 1960s was a decade of terrible difficulties as well as enormous hope and mobilization for American Black communities, particularly in Manhattan, New York’s Harlem neighborhood. By that time, the white American population, which had arguably always been insecure since they first set foot on the continent, had oppressed all people of color to second-class (or worse) status. The 1960s saw a changing tide in this social system, particularly through the massive participation of black people in this reformation movement—the 60s was the time of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers. “Summer of Soul” makes direct mention of all of them, keeping in honest touch with the times and what the cultural festival meant and signified to the people of Harlem. Through one of the interviews, it even expresses how a neighborhood of oppressed people enraged by the constant assassinations of everyone they saw as their leader—President John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy—did indeed need a music festival to express their anger and frustrations in the right way (as opposed to more violent ways) in the summer of ’69. This festival, later dubbed “The Black Woodstock” (in order to sell it better) by Hal Tulchin, the man who filmed it, became the exact cultural togetherness that these communities required. It was not only about music, but about fashion, about hairstyles, about how a black man or woman took pride in their identity. And identity politics remained at the heart of it all: when the predominantly white NYPD expressed reservations about providing security at the festival, the Black Panthers stepped up and brought their own security to Mount Morris Park. The film brings to the fore all of this with exceptional brilliance and powerful making as it analyzes the entire scenario of what the festival was and everything that led up to it.
There is hardly anything wrong or lacking in “Summer of Soul,” as it expresses the depths and seriousness of racial and social injustice. It is not always about the struggles of African-Americans; rather, there is enough exploration into the artists who perform, their own excitement and jubilation at being able to perform with artists they admire, and the reception of it all by the audiences, not just from a social or political standpoint, but also as individuals. Another praiseworthy aspect of the film is that it takes its time and presents performances in their entirety, not cutting out excerpts from them. It was music that tied everything together in the Harlem Festival of ’69, and that is the same thing happening in the film as it presents everything from jazz to blues to gospel and to funk. There is an incredible power that resonates throughout the film, as if it successfully transports the viewer into the energy and whirlwind of Harlem in that summer of 1969, and the profundity of B.B. King singing “Why Do I Sing the Blues” or Nina Simone performing “Backlash Blues” is delivered to perfection. “Summer of Soul” is an absolute must-watch documentary film, and it will perhaps hold a special place in black culture and history portrayed in cinema for years to come.
‘Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution could not be televised)’ is a 2021 Documentary directed by Ahmir “Questlove.”