Well known for his gig as musical director for the Tonight Show and drummer for its in-house band, Roots, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson made his directing debut on the opening night of Sundance 2021 with the documentary Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution could not be Televised).
According to a black journalist who’d worked for the New York Times, 1969 was the pivotal year when the word ‘Negro’ changed to ‘Black’. Along with that change came revolutions in civil rights, culture, clothing, hair fashion and music.
For six weeks that summer of ‘69, only 100 miles from the ultimately more famous Woodstock festival, tens of thousands of Harlem’s residents gathered in Mt. Morris Park for the 3rd annual Harlem Cultural Festival. It was filmed in its entirety, but the organizers could find no interested takers to televise or in any way promote or preserve the event. The tapes were stored away in a basement for 50 years.
This doc takes incredible footage from the concerts and interjects vintage news clips from the moon landing to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in order to illustrate the atmosphere and attitudes of the era. Performers included Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, The Fifth Dimension, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, The Staples Singers and many, many more.
The attendees were young and old, entire families. Their joy and celebration clapping, singing, and dancing, along with the performers who entertain them was infectious. Marilyn McCoo, singer with The Fifth Dimension, commented as she watched her very young self-perform the hit song ‘Age of Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In’, that what was happening in Harlem that day “was very, very important.”
Some of those interviewed remarked about what it meant for them to be among the largest group of black people they’d ever seen. And up on the stage in front of them, talented, role models, their own people lifting them up, giving them reasons to be proud.
The irony was not lost on director or producers that many of the protests and reasons for protesting back in 1969 are still inspiring protest today.
The fact these concerts were filmed and preserved is a treasure. That it took 50 years to give it value and make it part of our cultural history, a tragedy.
For KPCW, this is Barb Bretz.