It was the ultimate Black barbecue.
1970. That was the year Michael Wadleigh‘s epic film showcasing the August 1969 Woodstock Festival debuted. Woodstock won the Oscar for best doc, was nominated for best editing (Thelma Schoonmaker), and entered the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress in 1996. It took five months for this counterculture phenomenon that occurred near Bethel, New York to be seen by the world. Five months. And yet it’s taken until in 2021—50 years—to finally get the chance to see a different concert series (the Harlem Cultural Festival) that occurred two months earlier than Woodstock in Harlem, New York’s Mount Morris Park. The extensive footage has been collecting dust in a basement for half a century and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why.
Director Ahmir-Khalib “Questlove” Thompson pulls no punches titling its unveiling to the world Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). Tony Lawrence’s multi-day festival had acts like Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, and Gladys Knight & the Pips and you’re telling me nobody thought it was viable for public consumption? I don’t buy it. But when you look at what else occurred and who else was there, the notion that this music and this event was bigger than just a concert becomes clear. It was a part of the Black revolution—a stage for artists to speak directly to Black men, women, and children without filter and to celebrate their lives together at a crucial moment of awakening within these United States.
So while there’s a ton of never-before-seen footage of the show itself, this isn’t some fly-on-the-wall documentary transporting us back into the moment. Questlove is telling us the story of the time: why this concert occurred, why those acts agreed to come, and why the combined attendance of almost three hundred thousand have spent the past five decades wondering if it really happened because this seminal event in their lives had been all but erased from our collective consciousness. It’s not therefore enough to simply press play and enjoy the music. He needs to hunt down attendees for recollections. He needs to interview musicians and hear them speak about the experience. And he needs to put its impact in context with the civil rights movement at-large.
With expert precision and a keen awareness for when a song demands the reverence of being played in full and when it’s better utilized as a springboard towards background elucidation, Summer of Soul takes us below the surface into the political and cultural ramifications of a year that one subject calls the year “Black” was reclaimed as an identifier for their people sans the negative connotations white America had placed upon it. Former New York Times journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault confirms as much when talking about how she forced her editors to change their style guides and render it permanent in ink before another subject recalls looking at the sea of Black faces in the crowd surrounding him and being amazed because he’d never seen so many together before.
There’s added meaning when Jesse Jackson is on-stage alongside Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson (the first two providing memories via interview) talking about Martin Luther King Jr. and Black pride as a result. There’s added meaning when the gospel day creates a veritable religious experience through contemporary sounds—the ones that got Edwin Hawkins in trouble with his church after recording “Oh Happy Day.” And it doesn’t get better than having a news reporter going through the crowd to get people’s reactions about the moon landing (which occurred during the show) only to hear them all say they could care less because that money would have been better spent on ending poverty right here in their community. The festival epitomized a truth white America refused to acknowledge.
It’s no wonder it was shelved. While that decision prevented us from seeing what occurred as rapidly as Woodstock, however, there is a silver-lining where anecdotes and history are concerned. And this is where Questlove excels most because he has something to say through interviewees at every turn. Mayor John V. Lindsay making an appearance could have just been dismissed as a Republican politician looking to garner support from prospective voters if not for the context provided to explain who he was to this community. Watching The 5th Dimension perform “Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In” could have just been another song amongst many if not for Marilyn McCoo telling us how important this specific gig was to connect their music (called “not Black enough”) to their people.
The meaning behind what occurred in that park during the month of June 1969 simply can’t be quantified. And the fact that its impact has been diminished by a refusal to acknowledge it even occurred is criminal. To see Musa Jackson with tears in his eyes while watching the footage after having been there as a pre-teen says it all because, at a certain point, memories aren’t enough. Our minds tend to change details in hindsight and let nostalgia project importance on occasions that perhaps don’t deserve it—so you can’t blame him for wondering all these years if the Harlem Cultural Festival really was as formative to his identity (and that of countless others) as he believed it was. Now, because of Questlove, he has his answer.
 Sly Stone, shown. (Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)
 Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson, shown. (Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)
 The 5th Dimension, shown. (Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)