Part concert film, part time capsule, the critically acclaimed documentary “Summer of Soul” showcases a festival series you wish you could attend.
While the eyes of the nation were trained toward the hamlet of Bethel, N.Y., where an estimated 400,000 people descended upon an alfalfa field to attend Woodstock, a smaller but no less resonant arts festival was well underway in Harlem. Approximately 300,000 people of all ages packed into a Harlem park in the summer of 1969 to bear witness to what would be deemed the Black Woodstock.
The Harlem Cultural Festival was held over six Sundays that summer in what’s now Marcus Garvey Park. With support from Mayor John Lindsay and sponsorship from Maxwell House coffee, promoter Tony Lawrence organized six showcases of Black and Afro Latin excellence on a single stage.
The Staples Singers and Mahalia Jackson headlined gospel day; a slickly dressed David Ruffin shared the stage with Gladys Knight and the Pips for a soul showcase; percussionists Ray Barretto and Mongo Santamaria tied the boogaloo and burgeoning salsa scenes to contemporary Black music; Sly and the Family Stone (who started their ’69 tour at Black Woodstock and ended at Woodstock in Bethel) took the audience higher as one of few prominently integrated bands; Nina Simone blessed the stage with an incisive and powerful display of Black consciousness and pride, singing “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”
The festival series was a massive hit with Harlemites and performers, but received little press from mainstream or independent Black publications. TV veteran Hal Tulchin compiled an estimated 40 hours of music, comedy, dance and audience delight, and attempted to sell the footage as the Black Woodstock. No one bit.
Although a recent report noted that Tulchin’s footage had been digitized by archivist and director Joe Lauro around a decade ago and several directors had developed documentaries, Tulchin’s footage — and the soul-affirming Harlem Cultural Festival — remained largely forgotten by time and popular culture, until now.
“Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” the critically acclaimed directorial debut of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, unearths that footage anew. The spectacular showcase of artists, comedians, dancers and audience is placed against a backdrop of one of the most turbulent and culturally rich periods of American history. At the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, “Summer” won the U.S. Grand Jury and Audience prizes for nonfiction.
“History saw it fit that every last person that was on that stage now winds up defining a generation,” Thompson told The New York Times in a recent interview, adding that he was skeptical about the unknown festival when producers Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein first approached him about directing. “For nearly 50 years, this just sat in a basement and no one cared. My stomach dropped.”
It seems almost impossible today that the story of a free festival featuring a teenaged Stevie Wonder (who also opens the film with a rarely heard drum solo), B.B. King, Hugh Masekela, the Chambers Brothers (whose single “Time” is an enduring anti-war anthem), the Fifth Dimension, drummer Max Roach, Reverend Jesse Jackson and comedian Moms Mabley with auxiliary security from local Black Panthers could be lost to time.
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“This was a really unique festival,” producer Joseph Patel, a veteran journalist and videographer who has known Questlove for over 20 years, told ALL ARTS. Yet organizers may not have had a sense of the festival’s enduring enormity. “I think hindsight sort of gives that reflection that this was really important.”
The Harlem Cultural Festival was designed to soothe an aggravated neighborhood, which had seen riots following the assassination of MLK a year prior and acutely experienced the dark side of the ‘60s. While it would take generations for it to enter the cultural zeitgeist, the festival was incredibly important to the Harlem residents who attended.
In a series of cutaways, interviewees are filmed as they watch the concert footage for the first time, tears forming in their eyes. Musa Jackson recalled attending as a 5-year-old with his siblings and mother’s boyfriend. “It smelled like Afrosheen and chicken. It was the ultimate Black barbecue [but] you knew it was something bigger,” he says in the film.
“For someone like Musa, this is his first memory,” Patel said. “And he’s probably for years told people about this, and no one believes him. So that was really powerful.”
Several women recounted their coordinated lies to parents to sneak out and see David Ruffin. “We hadn’t had anything like that before,” Dorinda Drake, then 19, remembers in the film. “It was the summer we became free.”
Families packed sandwiches, vendors sold balloons for children and grilled chicken to sell along the park’s perimeter. Others came by in their Sunday best after church.
The Harlem Cultural Festival was also important for the performers. “I was overtaken with joy. I saw so many Black people; they were rejoicing and having a good time and I started celebrating with them,” said Mavis Staples, who, in a particularly poignant moment of the film, joins forces with her idol Mahalia Jackson to sing “Precious Lord Take My Hand,” a favorite of MLK. For members of the Fifth Dimension, who had a No. 1 single in 1969 with “Age of Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine in,” being received by Black audiences in Harlem was a legitimizing force. “Sometimes we were called the Black group with the white sound, and we didn’t like that,” singer Marilyn McCoo tells Thompson. “How do you color a sound?”
While footage of festival acts is spectacular — and the curious will delight in seeing audience shots of people singing and swaying in time to the music, the result of a keenly constructed two-track audio feed — the real brilliance of “Summer” is its contextualizing of the series against the history of Black American struggle and success. Through a distinctly Black lens, the filmmakers deftly examine the assassination of Malcolm X, MLK and Bobby Kennedy, Afrocentricity and the Black Power movement, and even the moon landing with quick cut, montage style interludes.
“There’s so much going on. It’s just so rich, and it just makes the larger point of like, why wasn’t the story remembered even more emphatic,” Patel noted. Thompson is never heavy handed in the film’s reflection, nor is he overly nostalgic, preferring instead to let instrumental segments ease you into conversation.
The story of the Harlem Cultural Festival may have been a lost memory because Hal Talchin had an outsized idea of what his footage was worth in 1969 “and he didn’t want to just give it to anybody,” Patel said. Talchin signed over the original footage to producers just before he died in 2017. In addition to digitizing 40 hours of film, producers had to recreate the festival lineup because so little detail of the concert existed. They dug through archives of Walter Cronkite newscasts, interviews with Red Fox and digitized episodes of news program “The Black Journal.” Then, they had to find interviewees.
“People in Harlem are not trusting of outsiders. We couldn’t just be like, ‘Hey, we’re doing this thing. Can you come over here?’ We had to hit the ground,” Patel said. Producers went to community centers, bookstores, churches and met with community leaders. On one occasion, they went swing dancing with a Black Panther Cyril “Bullwhip” Innis Jr.
And if finding sources who attended a festival 50 years ago wasn’t challenging enough, COVID-19 threw another wrench in things.
Mavis Staples was one of the last interviews for the film — scheduled in spring 2020. Instead of coming to the studio in New York, Staples’ interview was conducted over Zoom, with a sound engineer in a hazmat suit and a 60-foot-cord standing outside the door to her Chicago apartment. Her voice is heard throughout the film, but the inability to shoot contemporary video was a forgone conclusion.
From production to execution, “Summer of Soul” is more than a concert film. It’s a document of resilience and the resounding, indefatigable power of music.
“Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” is streaming on Hulu and screening in theaters now.
Top Image: Sly Stone performs at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, featured in the documentary SUMMER OF SOUL. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021. 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.