Questlove’s directorial debut, Summer of Soul, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, shows how Black music from across the diaspora helped make the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival such a historical moment.
In America, history is often filtered through a white lens, leaving pivotal events in Black history out of focus. Our civil rights leaders were villainized during their time, but that truth has been obscured by white revisionism. We are seeing that now with the media’s coverage of Black Lives Matter protests, whose legacy is being shaped by white newscasters and journalists feigning ignorance about their importance. With social media, we are fighting historical revisionism in real-time, pushing back against a resurgence of violently racist narratives that burn with an intensity that hasn’t been seen since the news coverage of the Rodney King riots in the ’90s. The exceedingly militarized police force came out in full force in Ferguson, Missouri, while Black people joined together to demand justice for their murder of Mike Brown. Across the country, from Staten Island to Texas to Kentucky, our people have been murdered and we are painted as the villains for demanding accountability. Many of the films to come out during this cultural era have been addressing this pain directly. While this is important, we have been sorely missing films that both address that pain and provide a sense of levity and optimism.
It is in this time that we have been given the gift of Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised), a musical documentary incorporating the long-lost footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Footage of the festival, originally filmed by the late Hal Tulchin, sat in a basement for 50 years before Ahmir-Khalib Thompson (better known as The Roots’ Questlove) retrieved it and began crafting it into a documentary (which you can stream on Hulu starting Friday, July 2nd.) Thompson seamlessly applied his musical prowess in punctuating iconic performances with talking-head interviews and vital news footage that puts the festival in its proper historical context. Coming to us over a year after Sydney Pollack’s remastered Aretha Franklin musical documentary Amazing Grace, Summer of Soul is an even larger reminder of the jewels of history that are hidden from us due to production complications, a false narrative of disinterest, or a combination of both.
In the blazing hot summer of 1969, over 300,000 people gathered for the historic Harlem Cultural Festival in Mount Morris Park in Harlem. The event was held over six weekends, spanning from June 19 to August 24, and included a wide swathe of Black music that reached across genre in an attempt to encapsulate the diversity of the diaspora. On the final weekend of the festival Woodstock was held, a coincidence that would go on to overshadow the event that was later referred to as “Black Woodstock.” But the Harlem Cultural Festival had many aspects that further divested it from its white counterpart, chief of which was its deeply communal atmosphere that encouraged Black people of all ages to attend. As you watch the film, it plays like an expansive family reunion with a warmth that manages to touch every soul there.
The festival was produced and hosted by Tony Lawrence, who was a lounge singer and promoter with endless charisma. Despite him being an instrumental part of this historic event, there are surprisingly few resources on Lawrence and his career. He is remembered in the film by the people who knew him, highlighting his charm and hardworking spirit. He got permission to hold the festival from New York City Mayor John Lindsay, who is described as a “liberal Republican” who cared about the Black community. Lawrence also secured Maxwell House Coffee as the official sponsor for the event. Lawrence seemed to only receive pushback from the NYPD, who initially refused to provide security for the event. Luckily, the Black Panthers were there to step in and make sure everyone was safe.
It’s difficult to describe the experience of watching Summer of Soul. With its music, dancing, and togetherness, the film is a celebration of Black joy in a decade where it was hard to come by. But it’s more than a history lesson — it’s a crash course in Black music, highlighting how foundational it has been to the culture at large. The festival reached across genres, highlighting pop, R&B, soul, gospel, African music, Cuban music, and the early iterations of psychedelic music and funk. The festival included performances by giants like Gladys Knight & the Pips, BB King, Sonny Sharrock, David Ruffin, Sly and the Family Stone, and Stevie Wonder. Wonder is actually the first musician shown in the film, the legendary artist dressed in a stylish yellow and chocolate ensemble, singing and playing the drums. As Wonder is one of the few artists from the festival that is still with us, it’s fascinating to see the then-19-year-old there right at the cusp of a turning point in his career and identity as an artist. Being at the festival was a statement for both the performers and the audience, all joined together to celebrate Blackness in a way never afforded to them before. There, they had the space to embrace each other in an environment conceived specifically for them. An exhilarating performance by the legendary Nina Simone manages to embody the feelings and tone of the whole affair, grounding the festival in political and cultural power.
Summer Of Soul captures how the Harlem Cultural Festival was a breathtaking event of community healing, coming only a year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the riots that followed. The event arrived on the cusp of a widespread shift in Black identity. Afros and dashikis were coming into style. “Negro” became an outdated term and was replaced by “Black” in major publications. This is the time that birthed the mantra: “Black is beautiful.” And for perhaps the first time in history, we were able to believe it.
This story was originally published on February 5, 2021.
Jourdain Searles is a writer, comedian, and podcaster who hails from Georgia and resides in Queens. She has written for Bitch Media, Thrillist, The Ringer, and MTV News. As a comic, she has performed stand-up in venues all over New York City, including Union Hall, The People Improv’s Theater, UCB East, and The Creek and the Cave. She can be found on Twitter.