If Woodstock was the heart of the 60s, the Harlem Cultural Festival was its soul.
Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary concert film Woodstock is widely considered the definitive cultural document of the 1960s. Yet the audience and performers in attendance during those four summer days in 1969 were overwhelmingly white, leading one to question just exactly whose cultural revolution the film was really documenting. Not long after Woodstock hit theaters a local New York TV producer named Hal Tulchin tried to sell distributors on concert footage of another definitive music event of summer 1969: the Harlem Cultural Festival. A 6-week undertaking in Manhattan’s Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) featuring acts like Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight, and Nina Simone, with a combined audience of nearly 300,000 — almost entirely Black. Tulchin marketed the event footage as “the Black Woodstock,” but no one was interested. As far as Black Americans were concerned, their revolution would not be televised.
After sitting in a basement for 50 years the footage found its way to Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson who has used it to create an immersive and vibrant monument to the Black music and culture of the 1960s. Part concert film, part documentary, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) celebrates Black joy in the wake of one of the most fraught decades in Black (and American) history, and seeks to fill in a corner of our collective cultural memory that until now had been forgotten. If Woodstock was the heart of the 60s, the Harlem Cultural Festival was its soul.
The film mixes musical footage with interviews of attendees and performers to weave a deeper narrative about the festival and its role as an emotional pressure valve for the Black community in the summer of 1969. At the close of a tumultuous decade the community had lost its greatest leaders: John and Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., whose assasination the previous year had sparked riots in Harlem which seemed poised to re-ignite. The North Manhattan neighborhood has always balanced a complicated reputation as both the epicenter of Black culture and as the poster child of urban decay born from segregation and disenfranchisement. Summer of Soul thoughtfully probes a similar duality of Black joy as an essential counterpoint to Black struggle, yet the film never becomes bleak or didactic. As one attendee recalled, “they call it ‘freedom music’ because it’s what freedom feels like.” This is a film about the uplifting and galvanizing power of music, and in Summer of Soul the music speaks for itself.
The film’s structure groups together musical genres to explore various aspects of the Black experience in the late 60s. The gospel of Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples harkens back to the musical traditions of the past while the psychedelic funk of Sly and the Family Stone kicks open the door to a more radical future, with Latin percussionists like Ray Barretto speaking to the unique experience of East Harlem’s Afro-Latine community. All of it is held together by the festival’s dynamic organizer and emcee Tony Lawrence, a natural showman brimming with ebullient charm while wearing increasingly bombastic costumes. A completely separate film could be made about Lawrence’s crusade to mount the festival in the face of heavy skepticism (I doubt when financiers demanded security on the premises they realized it would come in the form of the Black Panther Party).
The sound and video quality of the footage is remarkable, capturing everything from the performers’ flamboyant technicolor costumes to the beads of sweat perched on their skin. It’s easy to lose yourself in the experience thanks to Joshua L. Pearson’s immersive editing, which elegantly blends together performance, archival, and interview footage into a seamless whole. Almost as entertaining as the acts themselves are the frequent inserts of the all-ages crowd, dressed to impress, as they sway, dance, sing, and rush the stage. For many in attendance not even the moon landing — which occurred during the festival — matched the importance of this experience which spoke to them in a way that white men on the moon did not.
The moon landing segment is one of several ways Summer of Soul decouples traditional narratives about the 1960s from the white lens that has been historically used to frame them. The film smartly avoids concluding with a sentimental message of racial progress that might make white audiences feel absolved but would otherwise ring false in the wake of 2020. Instead Thompson hands the film’s final rallying cry to the legendary Nina Simone, resplendent in a flowing gown of West African cloth and a towering, crown-like hairstyle, a poet-warrior queen speaking directly to her people. She performs the song “Young, Gifted, and Black” before reciting a poem that asks, “are you ready to smash white things?…Are you ready to build black things?”
It’s easy to label Summer of Soul an “important” film because it is. It fills in a necessary piece of American history that was at risk of being lost. You can glimpse its power on the faces of the interview subjects as they watch the footage, their eyes sparkling with delight and emotion as they re-experience an event they thought existed only in their memories. But “important” films too often feel like homework, and Summer of Soul is far too much of a good time for that. To call it “the Black Woodstock” is an injustice. Summer of Soul stands on its own as a celebration of Black history, Black culture, and Black joy. See it if you love music, see it if you love history, see it if you love great filmmaking, and don’t miss the post-credits scene.