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  • Published in Film Review
Summer of Soul movie poster. Image: Searchlight Pictures

Summer of Soul movie poster. Image: Searchlight Pictures

The recently released Summer of Soul shows us a side of the counterculture that deserves to be better known, argues Jim Aindow

Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is a fantastic documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. Featuring the likes of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight, BB King, Sly and the Family Stone and many more, it seems almost unbelievable that the festival is not more widely known – and even more unbelievable that the documentary about the festival only came out this year. The Woodstock Festival of the same year is still lauded as the highpoint of 1960s counterculture, but Summer of Soul now challenges that assumption.

Set over 6 weekends in late 1969 at Mount Morris Park in Harlem and put together by the garish and self-possessed Tony Lawrence, the festival was recorded by Hal Tulchin, but the videotape sat in a basement for 50 years until it was rediscovered. The film highlights the breadth and depth of  black American music and culture including jazz, gospel, soul, blues, funk and Latin.

There are numerous stand-out moments, including Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples’ passionate vocals that could make even the most convinced atheist get on their knees and pray. Stevie Wonder playing drums, the incredible Mongo Santamaria, the inspirational Ray Barretto – and then there is Nina Simone’s heart-breaking ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’ – they draw you in as if you were there.

This is the end of the ‘60s, so psychedelia is influencing both the music and clothing. Watch out for some amusingly lurid outfits and wonderfully fancy footwork from The Pips of Gladys Knight and the Pips. Not every style was represented, however – Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies were denied a spot on the bill, despite their requests to be involved. Maybe they were just too far out.

The documentary intersperses scenes from the festival with archive footage contextualising the music as part of the struggle for black civil rights and its vicious suppression. Indeed, it becomes clear in the documentary that one of the reasons for holding the festival in the first place was to provide an outlet for the black community when racial tensions were high – Martin Luther King had been killed the previous year and segregation was being challenged.

The Vietnam War was raging and it was black Americans who were disproportionally sent off to do imperialism’s dirty work. The leaders of those opposed to war and racism were imprisoned or killed – in addition to King, there was Malcolm X, soon to be joined by the Panthers’ Fred Hampton.

The festival also took place during the US moon landing. At one point, we hear some of the reactions from festival goers, who asked what the point of the moon landing was when there were so many problems on Earth. Besides that, many were far happier to be at the festival than watch the televised landing at home – an event they had no attachment to. Gil Scott-Heron’s track ‘Whitey on the Moon’, released in 1970, expresses the sentiment perfectly.

The police, anticipating the most boisterous audience for the super-hip Sly and the Family Stone, refused to provide crowd security for the festival, so the Black Panthers stepped up. However, even the brothers on the block couldn’t dampen the excitement over what looked like a dangerously packed and surging throng, and ultimately only threats to end the festival calmed things.

Sly’s band was racially mixed, which was unusual for the period. They even had female instrumentalists, even rarer. Sly wanted and succeeded in taking the people higher! Watching the band perform at its most popular to a mass, overwhelmingly black audience was a highlight.

Questlove deserves an Oscar, at least for rescuing this historic document and producing a documentary that truly captures not just the festival but the political moment in which it took place. Ultimately, it was the denial of black emancipation that explains the event being hidden for so long.

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