From the moon landing to Richard Nixon’s inauguration, 1969 was a year of legendary events. The Harlem Cultural Festival is one that slipped through the cracks of time, however. This celebration of African-American music was overshadowed by Woodstock, which took place around the same time. The concert series would even develop the nickname “Black Woodstock,” assembling an equally impressive roster of artists. Where Woodstock remains an iconic musical milestone, though, “Black Woodstock” wasn’t even televised. Footage of the festival has been sitting in a basement for almost five decades, but the Harlem Cultural Festival springs back to life in Summer of Soul.
I’d be lying if I said that concert documentaries were my jam. To me, watching a concert on screen is like viewing a filmed version of a play. Without a stage or in-person talent, a crucial element is usually lost. Of course, there are exceptions. Last year, Hamilton brought Broadway to streaming, amounting to one of the year’s most joyous cinematic experiences. Summer of Soul has a similar effect, capturing the sensation of live performance. Unlike Hamilton, though, audiences have the option of either streaming this film on Hulu or seeing it in the theater. While there isn’t a wrong way to watch Summer of Soul, the theater does add to its deeper themes of community.
Having gotten little press, one might assume that the festival’s attendance was low and the talent was obscure. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only did the festival bring together 300,000 people, the acts included legends like Stevie Wonder, The 5th Dimension, and Gladys Knight & the Pips, just to name a few. Watching these performances, the audience is transported back to another era. It was a difficult time of transition following the assassinations of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. For a brief period during the summer of 1969, the world became a bit more colorful. How could such a significant cultural landmark go unnoticed? The label “Black Woodstock” may be one of the reasons why.
Now more than ever, it’s clear that there’s never been a lack of Black talent. The problem is that many of these artists haven’t been given the same platform as others. History has been robbed of countless gifted performers who never made it due to their skin color. Even the ones who achieved superstardom didn’t always get the attention that they deserved. As Harlem was captivated by Stevie Wonder’s extraordinary drum solo, the rest of America was fixated on Apollo 11. This is a perfect analogy for where the country was in 1969 and where it still is today.
For all the difficult themes it tackles, Summer of Soul is an uplifting film that overflows with humanity and harmony. The music is intoxicatingly toe-tapping and almost every song offers a fascinating retrospective. Director Ahmir Khalib Thompson, better known as Questlove, has been a prominent player in the music industry for almost three decades. With his feature directorial debut, Questlove has done exactly what the Harlem Cultural Festival set out to do. Bring people together, feel the music, and heal. Unlike the festival itself, hopefully the film doesn’t go overlooked.
Summer of Soul is being released by Searchlight Pictures, Hulu, and Onyx Collective.