Review by James Mahon
The footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival has been locked up for fifty years in a basement. An event which epitomised the ‘wholesale revaluation’ of black culture and history has remained unseen and unknown. That is until the release of Questlove’s (Ahmir Khalib Thompson) Summer Of Soul (… Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised, 2021) which puts the archival footage of the Festival centre stage, in what is an unrestrainedly powerful and impassioned documentary.
This is in large part down to the richness and wealth of the festival footage. As a primary source, it functions as a direct channel into the cultural vibrancy and energy of the events held in New York over a two-month period. Questlove shows deft self-control in his directorial debut, allowing the significance of the 50-year-old film to speak for itself as a precious historical artefact. Consequently, most of what we witness is forty to fifty thousand black men, women, and children dancing, clapping, and crying to the music of gospel, soul, blues, jazz performed by Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, David Ruffin and many more. Hearing and seeing the effect of Simone’s ‘Young, Gifted and Black’, the dual performance of Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples of Martin Luther King Jr’s favourite song ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’ or Ruffin’s ‘My Girl’, was electrifying in its visceral sorrow, joy, and pride. The footage is a spontaneous evocation of the pain suffered by black people in 1960’s America and their defiant optimism.
Although Questlove does direct much of the focus of the film towards the live musical acts of the festival, all of it is contextualised and intricately interspersed with a vast array of in-depth background footage. Figures such as the liberal republican mayor John Lindsay who supported the festival’s creation or Tony Lawrence its founder, become intimately known by the audience with a delicately crafted and quick-paced selection of their speeches, photos, and recorded conversations. Although perhaps initially superficial, this is furthered by interviews not just with conventional talking-head experts, but with numerous actual festival attendees and performing musicians/activists such as Gladys Knight and Reverend Jesse Jackson. All of which emphasises the transformative social and cultural dynamics experienced by those present at the time, from the emerging afro hairstyle to the popularity of the traditionally African Dashiki garment, it underscores the repossession of black culture from the influence and distortion of others. Most importantly the film underlines the inherently political motivation of the music heard beyond that of aesthetic purposes, rather as an authentic medium for black empowerment and liberation.
Whilst the documentary takes on national and international subjects, it is always tonally connected to Harlem and its people. The cohesive effect of the cultural festival and its significance to the community is consistently evident during the film. Through this the fundamental flaw of 1960’s American society is overtly seen, the sharp dichotomy between the poverty of Harlem and the endless resources poured into Vietnam and scientific explorations to the moon. Nonetheless the film endeavours not to forget the exultant interconnectedness of Harlem’s diverse residents, the interactions between African Americans, Cubans and Puerto Ricans mediated through a mixture of their cultures and music.
Ultimately it is a disgrace that the wider world had to wait fifty years to experience the Harlem Cultural Festival. Nevertheless, from this material, Questlove has produced a documentary filled with strength, emotion and beauty.