When one thinks of a music festival in the state of New York in the hot summer of 1969, Woodstock naturally comes to mind.
But, about 100 miles away, over the span of six summer weekends, the Harlem Cultural Festival took place and boasted acts like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and B.B. King. The Harlem Cultural Festival seemed like an event for the history books when it attracted 300,000 attendees. However, this piece of history was nearly erased.
In Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s directorial debut, “Summer of Soul (Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” not only does he bring to light the significance of the festival happening at time of great social upheaval, but he intersects that with the unsettling realism that over 40 hours of footage of iconic Black artists sat untouched for over 50 years.
“1969 was a pivotal year for Black and Brown people … these stories needed to be told,” Thompson stated during a brief film introduction.
The documentary opens with a performance by Stevie Wonder. More acts take the stage against a backdrop of shots reminding audiences of the turbulence of the 1960s, which included assassinations of prominent figures to the Black community: John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Malcom X and, of course, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Musically, you can hear a welcome blur of genres — blues, rock, folk and gospel as well as influences from Latin cultures.
The documentary cuts to interviews with attendees, performers and activists who were seeing the footage for the first time.
Among these were Billy Davis Jr. and Marilynn McCoo of the musical group 5th Dimension, who watched themselves perform “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” some five decades later. In a solemn moment, Rev. Jesse Jackson watched himself emotionally recount his last moments with Dr. King.
During a virtual question-and-answer session, Thompson reflected on the parallels of the film to what’s happening in America today.
“It definitely was not lost on us that the very circumstances that caused this concert to be in the first place, that question of safety, civil unrest in the air … that 50 years later, the same exact thing was happening,” Thompson said. “Unfortunately, the timing was perfect.”