Hulu’s latest documentary is Questlove’s directorial debut and has already gained international praise at the Cannes Film Festival for Summer of Soul, made up of found footage from the Harlem Cultural Festival that took place in the summer 1969. A story told through the eyes of the people and performers who were there in a Ken Burns style music documentary that goes much deeper into the times that produce these types of cultural moments. In the film performances are featured and used as background music during interviews detailing the events seamlessly. The concert series has such heavy star power and talent that could rival Woodstock that took place under 100 miles away. At its core Summer of Soul is a snapshot of a moment that time had forgotten but whose message of unification couldn’t be more timely.
The sixties in America was a tourmoutolous decade for civil rights that was intensified by the war in Vietnam where black Americans died at a disproportionate rate on the front lines. Throughout the decade assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy left many holes in our society, no holes more glaring than the ones in the black community. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Harlem burned and rioted in disgust, many felt that the city was on the brink; the people fed up. The brainchild of local promoter and smooth talker Tony Lawrence, the Harlem Cultural Festival brought politicians, music performers, venders, and sponsors together to put the show 6 week event on. The documentary does a great job of showing how organized the festival was and how needed it was for the community of Harlem, an often disenfranchised burrow of predominantly black and Afro-Latino in New York City. One of the hardest pills to swallow is the segregation of culture and no example was more encapsulating than the public reaction to the moon landing that happened during the festival; interviews with a white public in awe and black public who thought it was a waste of money while their population suffers. This doc doesn’t pull punches or tiptoe a line on race or culture and that’s what makes it authentic.
The concert series that spanned over six weekends in the summer of 1969 had serious star power in a collection of headlines like Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight, The Staple Singers, and many others. There are many gems uncovered like Mongo Santamaria and Ray Borretto, Cuban and Puerto Rican jazz bands that reflected the many cultural shades of Harlem and the Afro Latino experience. There are so many shining moments and performances but there are few as impactful as Nina Simone’s rendition of Backlash Blues who’s never been captured as intimately before on camera. Stevie Wonder is fantastic as well showing how multi talented he is on the keyboard and as well as the drum set. The recovery of this footage is historical documentation of these artists for future generations to appreciate at such high quality of restored film. The stage was also shared by comedians and community speakers that helped use their medium towards the festival’s mission of bringing people together.
The glaring question throughout this documentary is “How did we miss this? How is this the first time I am hearing about this?” Was the footage hidden?” but those questions are never answered fully. They discuss the attempts to sell the footage but at the time there was no demand, “No one cared about Harlem.” Woodstock is known as the musical event of the decade, it’s footage has been sold and repackaged over the years multiple times. The biggest glaring difference between Woodstock and the Harlem Cultural Festival is the crowd, one overwhelmingly white and the other majority black. Ironically both festivals’ central themes were unity and love but both had to be observed in separate environments which is a stark reminder of how far we have come as a society. We have this footage now and for future generations to see the lengths we will go to come together.
This festival was described as a rose growing through concrete, a beautiful event in the wake of challenging times. The music from black artists in this generation is about carving out their identity in this new America that still lives in it’s old tradition. Music is universally unifying and this documentary is a great example showing how art is much more valuable than the price tag that is often put on it. The Harlem Cultural Festival is a great moment in American history and Summer of Soul captures all of it’s beauty in a snapshot into a time that needed love, unity, peace. Questlove should be proud of this achievement in both film and history, creating something that will live forever. If you love history, civil rights, good music, and great production; go watch Summer of Soul!