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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I’d like to offer that this festival needn’t be contextualized as “The Black Woodstock” since it really wasn’t. It was an unabashed celebration of African diasporic music and as such had no comparison at the time or since.
I saw Soul Summer over the weekend and was deeply disappointed to see it referred to in Hyperallergic, a media source I generally respect, as “Black Woodstock”. The film narrative specifically points out that the majority of the people who came to see the Harlem music festival were regular working and family people, people who could only afford to come out on a weekend, (not take a week off from their regular lives like the baby boomer white kids who made up the majority of the population at Woodstock). The day it rained, the audience chose to pull out umbrellas rather than lay around in the mud. These are just a couple of the most obvious examples. The festival, as I understood it, started out as “just a music festival” but became about uplifting the spirit of an oppressed people. The only thing I can tell the two music festivals had in common was that they did, in fact, have music, and both took place in the summer of ’69, But like Rolling Stone, and probably other mainstream media to come, Campbell has chosen to center whiteness in his title.
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