Context is everything. This has been my personal mantra for the last couple of years, in response to the many reviews, essays and articles I have read that take a specific form of entertainment at face value without considering the social, cultural, and even political context on which it was created and later released. Add to this the binary, tribal nature of our social media discourse, where there is no room for nuance. But, folks, nothing happens in a void.
Context IS everything in Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s amazing, jubilant and poignant first film, Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not be Televised).
In the summer of 1969, producer and entrepreneur Tony Lawrence convinced the City of New York, its liberal Republican mayor (yes, I know, an oxymoron, but Republican liberals did exist a long time ago) John Lindsay, along with Maxwell House Coffee, to sponsor a six-week series of concerts celebrating all aspects of Black culture and music, from blues to jazz, from gospel to funk. Harlem was one of the many neighborhoods destroyed by the riots resulting from Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination the year before. Lawrence’s idea was a simple but cathartic one: his event would defuse whatever raw, angry energy was still percolating in the community. With his festival, Lawrence wanted to tap into the healing power of art.
Held in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) and attended by more than 300,000 people, the Harlem Cultural Festival was shot with multiple TV cameras and no money by producer Hal Tulchin, with the stage built facing the sun so that it could provide a consistent (and cheap) source of light. The lineup could beat the shit out of any of Lollapalooza’s past lineups: The Fifth Dimension, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Pops Staples and the Staples Singers, Hugh Masekela, Mongo Santamaría, Ray Barretto, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, etc….
Tulchin tried to sell the idea of turning all that precious footage into some sort of documentary. But Woodstock, held three weeks after the final concert in the series, overshadowed the festival—the way Lolla overwhelms and swallows its competitors. There was simply no interest in Tulchin’s footage, and it languished in a basement for more than 50 years, until Questlove was approached by producers Robert Fyvolent and David Diberstein to take a look at it and direct a film about the festival. Questlove has taken all 40-plus hours of footage and created the ultimate concert film.
Questlove and editor Joshua L. Pearson organize this material around key performances to draw connections between them and what was happening in the performers’ career, their place in African American music history, and how each particular song spoke to the time and place. As they watch themselves perform “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In” more than 50 years ago, Fifth Dimension members Marilyn McCoo (with tears in her eyes) and Billy Davis Jr. not only recall how they recorded that hit, but also why playing to an all-Black audience was important to them: their sound was not considered Black enough by their peers (similar criticisms were levied against Whitney Houston decades later), and they wanted the community to see and experience what they were about. And as such gospel performers as Chicago’s Pops Staples and the Staples Singers and the Edwin Hawkins Singers perform on-screen, cultural critic Greg Tate highlights the role “spirit possession” played in those performances, how that eruption of movement and ecstasy came from Africa—one immediately draws a connection to the Yoruba religions—and how they manifest the emotional and psychological pain inflicted on their race. That sense of possession is evident in Stevie Wonder’s piano and, yes, drum solos. His then 19-year-old body moves as if possessed by either Oshún or Obbatalá.
“Gospel was the therapy for the stress and pressure of being Black in America,” the Reverend Al Sharpton says in the film. “We didn’t go lay on the couch. We didn’t know anything about therapists. But we knew Mahalia Jackson.” And it is Jackson whom the Reverend Jesse Jackson calls on to perform Dr. King’s favorite song, “Take My Hand, My Precious Lord.” Feeling sick, Mahalia invites Mavis Staples to join her. The result is a painful, anguished, heartbreaking cry of sorrow, where not only these performers but everyone on- and off-stage, the entire community, finally mourn their fallen hero. Therapy, indeed.
The streets of Harlem spoke a universal language: the drum. Lawrence, the smart producer and promoter that he was, invited two of the best practitioners of that instrument: Mongo Santamaría and Ray Barretto. While Mongo sticks to performing such classics as “Watermelon Man,” Barretto opted to tap into his acid jazz repertoire by performing “Abidhan” and “Together.” And in inviting South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela to perform, the festival connected the residents of Harlem to the entire African diaspora.
Nineteen sixty-nine was also the year that the African American community proudly claimed the term “Black” as an identifier. It was the same year that saw the emergence of two influential revolutionary organizations and political forces: the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. It was also the year white men landed on the moon; Questlove cuttingly contrasts between television news interviews with white and black people, the former speaking glowingly about progress and the advancement of science while the latter, some interviewed at the festival, express indifference and argue that the money spent on that trip to the moon would have been better spent in uplifting Black neighborhoods.
Alongside the musicians, community activists and behind-the-scenes personnel, Questlove interviews some of the actual concertgoers, some of whom were college-aged, and one, Musa Jackson, who was five at the time. Their interviews are full of mischievous glee, fond remembrances and, most of all, the painful realization of how such a pivotal moment in Black culture ended in history’s bottom, dusty drawer.
Like other arts- and culture-driven documentaries before it, Questlove occasionally relies on a contemporary celebrity or two to provide perspective. My only quibble with the use of this formula is the participation of Lin-Manuel Miranda (who wasn’t born at the time) and his father Luis (who didn’t move to New York until 1971) to talk about Barretto and the connection between Black and Puerto Rican music. Their presence in this sort of documentary is becoming way too ubiquitous for my taste. They may be the flavor of the era but, given the amount of research and detective work undertaken by Questlove and his team, I find it hard to believe they couldn’t find a Latino who lived in Harlem at the time and could speak clearly and concisely about the festival. On the other hand, the presence of percussionist Sheila E. and Young Lord co-founder and university professor Denisse Oliver-Velez does balance things out a bit.
The act of preservation and rescue extends to the footage’s restoration: from the attires worn by the artists and the crowd, to the hairstyles and even the stage itself, the colors pop, rich and vibrant. The sound is crisp and the editing sharp—it’s the best edited film of the year so far, fiction or documentary.
Winner of the Grand Jury and Audience Awards in the Documentary competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Summer of Soul is meant to be played loud and watched with a great amount of pride. It offers lessons aplenty for a new generation of activists and artists to draw from.
Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not be Televised) opens in theaters nationwide and begins streaming on Hulu on July 2.
Featured image: Nina Simone performs at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, featured in the documentary ‘SUMMER OF SOUL.’ (Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Studios)