Film files: ‘Summer of Soul’ is a testament to Black unity and pride

Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson performing 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.

During the psychedelic summer of the Manson murders and Woodstock ’69, a series of free concerts were held in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park. Featuring names such as Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, BB King, The Staples Singers, Mahalia Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and The Pips and David Ruffin, the concerts drew an audience of 300,000 people, most of them Black. Hal Tulchin, a legendary American video and television director, shot the festival and dubbed it ”‘the Black Woodstock.”

Until Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson got his hands on it, footage of the concerts was lost in a basement for 50 years, fading from popular memory.

Questlove’s directorial debut, “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” just won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 94th Academy Awards. The documentary centers on this footage from the 1969 edition of the Harlem Cultural Festival that he rescued and restored as a passion project.

Questlove — DJ, music historian and founding member of the hip hop band the Roots — is one of only a handful of African American directors who have won an Oscar. Notably, all of these victories have come in the documentary field.

“This is such a stunning moment for me right now, but it’s not about me,” Questlove said in his speech. “It’s about marginalized people in Harlem that needed to heal from pain. Just know that in 2022, this is not just a 1969 story about marginalized people in Harlem.”

As a big Questlove fan — I love the Roots and the work he did as executive music producer of “High Fidelity” (2020) — I was excited. Luckily, I was far from disappointed. 

The performances in “Summer of Soul” are hypnotic, rivaling those of Woodstock in ’69. In one performance, Nina Simone sings “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and recites a poem that asks the crowd if they are ready to “kill if necessary,” “smash white things” and “give yourself, your love, your soul, your heart, to create life.” In another, a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder drums out to the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing.”

The documentary also shines on a technical level. It is easy to slip up when assembling archival-footage documentaries, to cut away too often from the best footage, to invite guests to talk over images that speak for themselves. That is not the case with “Summer of Soul.” In spite of the common shortfalls of these kinds of documentaries, Questlove beautifully blends the music and archival footage.

Recently, I watched some grainy footage of Hendrix playing “Star Spangled Banner” live at Woodstock. Yes, the performance is intentionally distorted (Hendrix allegedly played the song with heavy distortion to imitate sounds of war in protest of the Vietnam War). But it’s still shocking how, if you go back and watch the original Woodstock concert film, the performances are almost unlistenable compared to the documentary’s footage of non-stop classics that don’t just stand but vanquish the test of time. 

The performances in “Summer of Soul” exist as an heirloom of this end of the ’60s moment of possibility and pride, but also of deep grief and anger for Black Americans.

​​While Questlove keeps the documentary’s focus on showcasing the music, he includes commentary on political issues ranging from the heroin epidemic to the Vietnam War, placing the music in a broader social context. The documentary covers journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who pushed for progress at The New York Times and helped change the common nomenclature from “Negro” to “Black.” It also features Harlem local Willie Tyler, who comments on the moon landing during the concert series, livid at how the government would spend money to send people into space when it could have gone to starving people on Earth.

The historical contributions of the recovered footage shown in “Summer of Soul” are remarkable. The documentary is worth the watch alone for the portrait it provides of late-60s Black America enjoying the national pastime of live, outdoor music. 

What is so special about “Summer of Soul” is how, in its intimate footage of Harlem locals dancing trancelike in the sun to the sound of soul, it captures a moment of joy and political expression for Black Americans during a time of social and political upheaval — a sense of belonging to something greater than oneself that is beautiful to witness.

Hannah Eliot SC ’24 is from San Francisco, California. She likes to surf and is on the search for more documentaries to watch.

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