“Nobody ever heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival. Nobody would believe it happened.” – Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).
Do you want to know what the funny thing is? Woodstock happened in the summer of 1969. 52 years ago, and it’s still every bit as famous and notorious as it was when it first welcomed an audience to its raucous stage of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.
Heck, I was born 30 years after Woodstock happened, and I still know what a wild time that night was. It’s like that cousin who tells you story after story at family gatherings, except they’ve been spinning the same tale over the last 30 years. But to be fair, Woodstock is a pretty stacked event.
Yet in all my young years, I had never even heard of another spectacular gathering at this scale taking place during the heat of ’69, which happened to be the Harlem Cultural Festival. As a matter of fact, the first time I even heard about it was in the trailer for Summer of Soul. As the trailer and the movie correctly predict, I and a lot of others didn’t realize such an event even took place. Likely because, up until the release of the film, footage from the Harlem Cultural Festival never saw the light of day.
‘Summer of Soul’ is a vibrant, energetic, and informative love letter…
Summer of Soul is a Questlove jawn, the first of its kind. And the first-time director (Ahmir Khalib Thompson as he’s otherwise known) wastes no time proving his filmmaking chops. Put simply, Questlove expresses his absolute love and understanding of the soulful roots of hip-hop and R&B. From start to finish, Summer of Soul is a vibrant, energetic, and informative love letter to that fateful summer in ’69 when the legends of African-American music all came together to create history. It’s also a great reminder of the shameful fact that events like these tend to get erased and forgotten.
Over the last year, I’ve found myself discovering more and more pieces of history that just now seem to be surfacing. Although I can’t blame all of my ignorance on these topics due to a case of intentional erasure. While several recent films, such as Judas and the Black Messiah, have featured historical events that may not have previously received such attention in the public’s eye, they weren’t exactly hidden from the public either. Summer of Soul is no different.
What Questlove aims to do with his feature directorial debut is not tell a story of a time forgotten, but celebrate a momentous occasion; a soulful gathering that serves as a turning point in Black history. All at a time when a growing unrest in the Black community of Harlem, brought about by the repeated and unjust assassinations of civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, threatened to tear the city apart.
The Harlem Cultural festival was truly one of a kind, and that’s a bittersweet truth.
Iconic Black musicians—including Stevie Wonder, Gladys Night, Nina Simone, and The 5th Dimension, the list goes on and continues to impress—all perform for an energetic, grooving crowd. Questlove presents this historical footage in such way that it genuinely feels like you’re an attendee of the festival as Tony Lawrence gets the crowd pumping and the music keeps on coming.
Not only is Summer of Soul one for the music lover, it’s also an extremely important historical artifact. The Harlem Cultural Festival was truly one of a kind, and that’s a bittersweet truth. It’s wonderful to know that there was such an event that offered Black people a chance to come together and share a love for music, and with any luck, something like this can happen again. Hopefully, it won’t nearly be forgotten.
Summer of Soul is now playing in select theaters through Searchlight Pictures. It’s also available to stream on Hulu. You can watch the official trailer here.