Kaleem Aftab explores the cultural and political context surrounding the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival and posits why this film was finally made more than five decades later.
Summer of Soul comprises concert footage shot over six weekends in Harlem in 1969 by TV veteran Hal Tulchin. For 50 years, the tapes showing primetime Stevie Wonder doing a drum solo, Mavis Staples duetting Precious Lord with Mahaila Jackson and ending with a defiant Nina Simone, have done little more than gathering dust. Some of the footage found its way onto YouTube, but by and large, this event was locked out of the mainstream. It is the concert that time forgot. That is all likely to change with the arrival of this excellent directorial debut documentary by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, hitherto best known as the drummer and frontman of hip hop legends The Roots.
The cultural amnesia regarding the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival is striking because the music scene and music documentaries have been central to our understanding of the civil rights movement and the anti-war protests that intertwined with such great artistic endeavour and political force in the late 60s. What would our memories of the era be without the all-time classic music documentaries, Mike Wadleigh's Woodstock (1970) with its memorable log-line '3 days of peace and music' and Gimme Shelter (1970), a look at the free San Francisco concert headlined by the Rolling Stones?
The answer is less white, Jimi Hendrix's memorable guitar-burning performance that closed Woodstock notwithstanding. It's telling that the concerts which entered the zeitgeist were Woodstock, part of the anti-war moment and Gimme Shelter's Altamont gig, a counter-culture event that descended into violence with the fatal stabbing of Meredith Hunter and three accidental deaths. Both these concerts attracted a predominantly white crowd. Meanwhile, the concert aimed at placating racial tension with a predominantly African-American audience has, until now, been forgotten by history and cinema alike.
The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival took place in Mount Morris (now Marcus Garvey) Park and was aimed at the predominantly African-American audiences living in the neighbourhood, still reeling from their sons being sent to Vietnam, and the devastating collective trauma of Dr Martin Luther King's assassination the year before. The event was produced and emceed by New York nightclub singer Tony Lawrence and supported by the liberal Republican New York mayor, John Lindsay. The Black Panthers provided security after the New York Police Department refused to oversee the event – the excuses given for their decision is a cover for the racist rationale behind it. The irony of this decision can be gleaned from the joyous atmosphere of this festival compared with the rancour of Altamont.
Summer of Soul's full title – which says everything about the cultural space the film operates in – is Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). It's a riff on Gil Scott Heron's iconic political poem and track entitled ‘The Revolution will Not be Televised’, which appeared on his 1970 album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. (Heron was inspired by a slogan made popular among the 1960s Black Power movement and is about the inability of the mainstream to capture the real heart of the people. The fact that it's taken 50 years for the Harlem Cultural Festival to appear in a contextualised documentary further shows Heron's and the Black Power movement's prescience.
When first approached by producers David Dinnerstine and Robert Fyvolent to direct the film, Questlove was mortified that he had never heard of the festival. Perhaps with an eye on the marketing of the documentary, the filmmakers have claimed that the footage was gathering dust in a basement for all these decades. (An attempt had previously been made to turn the footage into a documentary, and in 2019, a 50th-anniversary concert was held in Harlem to recognise the event's significance.) The simple answer as to why this film took so long to get made was, in the words of Questlove: ‘Nobody was interested.’ The ‘nobody’ here refers to white gatekeepers who have been telling the public that black stars and black subject matter do not sell movie tickets throughout the history of cinema.
While the fantastic concert footage would make Summer of Soul a concert movie worth watching on its own merits, Questlove elevates the documentary by contextualising what else was happening in America at the time. Director Bert Stern took a similar approach for Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959), the music documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, which will receive an event cinema released next month. The elements of representation that arise in Stern's film will make up the second part of this article next month.
One of the key moments in Summer of Soul doesn't take place on stage but happens when a documentary crew ask audience members what they felt about Neil Amstrong taking his small step for man and a giant step for mankind on the moon. The answer: that America should have spent some of that money reducing poverty in Harlem slums. The event in itself is political, and the crowd need no reminding of their place in America's pecking order.
Questlove also uses the moment to tell the story of how journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault fought for the New York Times to stop using the term negro, arguing that the paper needed to stop using racist terms as everyday vernacular. Soon, they began to use the term black instead.
The film arrives on the back of last year's toppling of statues, the murder of George Floyd, the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, debates about taking the knee on the football pitch, and constant racial abuse on social media. It feels like a film that has arrived at exactly the right time – a moment when we need to be reminded of the rewriting of history to remove black stories, black events and black culture, and is a step in the direction of addressing these significant imbalances.
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