The 1973 film Wattstax notwithstanding, the newly released, Summer of Soul (Or,…When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised), may be the best documentary about Black music ever made.
At nearly two hours, the documentary chronicles 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival, where more than 300,000 Black and Brown people showed up and showed out at a landmark, and until now forgotten event, that took place over a six-week period.
The three-day Woodstock festival that happened about two weeks later 100 miles away in Bethel, NY is widely recognized as a signature event that defined a generation. A New York Times review of the film notes that while Woodstock led to a “slew” of films, the “footage from the Harlem festival sat in the basement of the concert producer and videographer Hal Tulchin, who tried to garner network interest in an event that he colloquially called ‘Black Woodstock.’”
However, after witnessing what took place in Harlem in the summer of 1969, it may be more correct to say that Woodstock was the rock music version of the Harlem Cultural Festival.
Summer of Soul was produced by Ahmir Questlove Thompson, drummer for hip-hop band the Roots, which also serves as the in-house band for The Tonight Show. To make the film, he boiled down 40 hours of footage, offering a story about a generation caught up in the birth and high octane optimism of the Black Power movement.
The Harlem Cultural Festival was a pivotal event during a very volatile and violent period in America, a time when, as Rev. Al Sharpton explains in the film, “the Negro died and Black was born.”
The trauma template of the period was set in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was killed, followed by the assassination of Harlem’s own Malcolm X in 1965. One year before the festival, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were cut down by assassins’ bullets, and Richard M. Nixon was elected president.
One of the film commentators described the period as “America at its worst.” Indeed, Black power activist Stokley Carmichael’s speech about police brutality resonates with today’s Black Lives Matter movement.
Thompson, in the Times review, notes that after the Harlem riot the year before, when King was killed, a driving motivation behind the event was a summer-long festival to keep Black people calm.
Supported by Republican Mayor John Lindsay and organized by community impresario Tony Lawrence, the Harlem Cultural Festival featured many of the greatest Black music stars of the day: Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, B.B. King, the Staple Singers, Gladys Knight and the Pips, along with Mahalia Jackson and the Edwin Hawkins Singers.
Indeed, the Harlem Cultural Festival functioned as a community catharsis, a healing musical gumbo of gospel, jazz, blues, psychedelia, Afro-Latin grooves, and African dance orchestration. That healing was perhaps best embodied when gospel giant Mahalia Jackson was later joined by Mavis Staples to sing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” which was Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite hymn.
This was Harlem in 1969, the Black capital of the world, so the performances also marked a time in the community where cross-cultural love was immediately evident with Back and brown people connected by polyrhythmic sounds of the drum coming from the likes of Mongo Sanatamaria, Ray Baretto, Dinizulu and his African Dancers, and South African trumpet legend Hugh Masakela.
This was Harlem—even then a Black mecca —and every artist understood they had to bring their best chops to the stage. Until they were seen in live performance, most people thought the Fifth Dimension was a white group. But the group’s performance “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine” was gritty and funky, marked by Florence LaRue’s sister soul dancing and Billy Davis Jr. taking the audience to church during the second half of the song.
Summer of Soul also shows a Harlem during that period that was rarely, if ever captured in the national news: A place where families looked after one another, where children were raised by a village and the realization that Black is indeed beautiful. I’m sure there were more afros, dashikis and polyester suits, per capita at Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) where the festival was held than in any other place in the country.
“It smelled like Afro-Sheen and chicken,” one attendee said. “It was the ultimate Black barbecue.”
Part of the film’s title comes from jazz poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron’s iconic “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
One of the film’s more revealing moments was captured on July 20, 1969, when it was announced that Apollo 11 had landed on the moon. Stevie Wonder was performing. A TV reporter made his way through the crowd of thousands chronicling the reaction to the first man landing on the moon. The overwhelming response called to mind Scott-Heron’s “Whitey On The Moon,” that was released the next year.
“I couldn’t care less,” one attendee said. “Cash they wasted on getting to the moon they could have used to feed poor Black people in Harlem and all over this country.”
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