A grand unearthing of an event all but lost to wider cultural memory, Summer of Soul’s opening introduction of 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival — the “Black Woodstock” — is explosive. Footage of contemporary historical events flashes alongside a drum solo from Stevie Wonder, building to a thunderous crescendo as the title card lands. The sheer power of the imagery immediately makes it baffling that this was ever forgotten. Blending such electric concert performance and sociological retrospection, the documentary makes an appropriate directorial debut for Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, beloved producer and drummer for storied hip-hop collective The Roots. Despite being a first feature, Summer of Soul concisely balances performance, interview, and history in its own rhythmic fashion.
The archival footage is striking enough on its own, from event organizer Tony Lawrence’s vivid shirts to a galvanizing poetry recital in which Nina Simone asks “Are you ready to smash white things?” to a duet by Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson honoring Martin Luther King Jr. The performances bleed into a montage of impressions from the interviewees and imagery from the late ’60s and beyond. Thompson presents the festival as an anchor for large swathes of Black history, broad in its social scope but particular in how he relays this mixture of style and experience. Summer of Soul ties its solidarity and intersectional study of US oppression into the music; drums continue to be an essential messenger for Thompson, who discusses percussion as a universal language, enabling bonds amongst Harlem’s cultural melting pot.
When it comes to the film’s self-reflexive question about the festival’s seemingly inexplicable obscurity, the weary interviewees invoke the long-standing trend of historical erasure by the white establishment. Quest’s engagement with Musa Jackson (the first and last talking head seen) feels genuine due to a shared recognition of what was lost. They reassure each other — and viewers — that we’re not crazy for not knowing, reinforcing the need to constantly excavate and teach Black history. It’s an extremely small affirmation built on decades of heartbreak, but their mutual acknowledgment is one of the most moving pieces of film this year.
Summer of Soul opens in select theaters and will be available on Hulu starting July 2.
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