African-American directors have long used their powerful voice to admonish racism and injustice – think John Singleton, Ava DuVarney, Jordan Peele and of course, Spike Lee with his signature Joints. Newly ranking among this cohort is Ahmir Thompson, utilising long-lost footage of a monumental event to concoct a narrative of equal distinction.
In 1969, amidst a Climate of Hate in the United States, the New York neighbourhood of Harlem played host to a series of outdoor concerts, featuring musicians both prominent and rising, locally famed and internationally recognised. The free events, promoted as the Harlem Cultural Festival, took place over successive weekends during the Summer, their family-friendly façade masking an ulterior intention – as interviewee Darryl Lewis bluntly puts it, “to keep Black folks from burning up the city in ’69.”
Despite being attended by as many as 300,000 people, and earning the public support of New York City’s white, Republican Mayor, John Lindsay, press coverage of the Festival was limited, and a proposed film documenting the performances was shelved after failing to garner an investor. Multiple reels of video and audio that had been recorded for a documentary instead lay dormant in storage, unseen by the public eye for over five decades – hence this picture’s, full title, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021).
Director Thompson, a.k.a. Questlove, is best known for his work in the realm of music, and that melodic expertise is more than apparent in his selection of performances that are showcased within the feature. Highlights include a young Stevie Wonder’s masterful playing of the drums and keyboards; Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples’ powerful duet of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”; Ray Barretto on bongos trading fours with his double bassist; Sonny Sharrock wildly shredding on the electric guitar; Nina Simone’s eloquent prose in “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”; and Sly and the Family Stone’s call-and-response with the Harlem crowd.
Just about every performance that’s seen in Summer of Soul is reminisced about through present-day interviews with Festival attendees, social commentators, the musicians themselves, and a handful of celebrities with the most tenuous of links to the Festival – comedian Chris Rock being such an example. Most of the input these subjects provide amounts to little more than soundbites, but their statements are nonetheless insightful, and the fondness with which they recollect events appears earnest and genuine.
Not content with directing a concert film, Thompson also shapes Summer of Soul as a historical document of the African-American experience. Each performance is seceded by a brief interlude that explains, through archival footage and clips from the abovementioned interviews, the happenings in Harlem, the United States and the world that led to the Cultural Festival, demonstrating its place in a broader cultural movement of “Neo-Super Blackness” (as interviewee Greg Tate aptly describes it) and how it assisted in propelling it.
Some viewers might be baffled at this suggestion, given the lack of prominence afforded to the concerts until now. Summer of Soul hypothesises that an overshadowing of the Festival by two other events is the cause of that, said events being the Moon Landing in July of the same year, and the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, which took place the very same weekend that Nina Simone and B.B. King performed in Mount Morris Park. (In a delicious case of irony, the film treats both of these cultural touchstones with indifference.)
One gripe, admittedly minor, to be had with Summer of Soul is the varying quality of the concert footage. Video and audio of the event has been digitally restored from the original tapes, most of which looks and sounds pretty crisp; yet there are occasions when markings and damage to the recordings are rather visible, detracting from the experience. What’s needed is some further enhancement, or cleaning of the original imagery in order to truly, fully do the Harlem Cultural Festival justice.
Ahmir Thompson’s directorial debut is more than the recreation of a significant moment in history – it’s a stirring celebration of Black culture with a central message that’s just as relevant today. Possessing a voice that’s as loud and proud as the singers featured within, Summer of Soul is a documentary that ought to be seen and heard by all.
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is now streaming on Disney+.