For nearly 50 years, until he passed away in 2017, film director Hal Tulchin (“Black Woodstock”) kept the footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival tucked away in his basement. Prior to acquiring the footage, Ahmir Khalib Thompson – better known to fans of hip hop and late night television as “Questlove,” co-creator and internationally famous drummer of the now-iconic band, The Roots – had never even heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival. Once he got hold of it, he played all 40 hours of the footage on repeat for several months straight. He knew he needed to cut it down and create something more easily digestible to show the world, which is when he had the idea to create “Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised).”
“Summer of Soul (…OWTRCNBT)” is a documentary featuring never-before-seen footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival in the summer of 1969, as well as interviews with those who attended the festival. The film recently won two awards in the U.S. Documentary category at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival: The Audience Award and a Grand Jury Prize.
The Harlem Cultural Festival took place over the course of six weeks in Mt. Morris Park between June 29 and August 24, 1969, gathering more than 300,000 attendees overall. It featured the voices and accompaniment of acclaimed Black musicians such as Stevie Wonder, B.B King, Gladys Knight & The Pips, The 5th Dimension and The Chambers Brothers. Unfortunately, with Woodstock, which was initially widely derided, taking place that same summer just a few hours away, the historic festival did not get nearly the amount of national attention it deserved.
“This event was really a labor of love for Tony Lawrence,” says Questlove. “There just weren’t festivals that catered to Black people.” Tony Lawrence, the MC and organizer of the festival, conceived of the idea in 1967 and spent the next two years planning it with the New York City Parks Department. He was also responsible for getting John Lindsey, mayor of NYC at the time, to join in and support the festivities.
“Summer of Soul (…OWTRCNBT)” features legendary songs and performances such as “Uptown” by The Chambers Brothers, “Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In” by The 5th Dimension, “My Girl” by David Ruffin, “Why I Sing the Blues” by B.B King and “Dance to the Music” by Sly and the Family Stone.
What made the Harlem Cultural Festival so special wasn’t just the music — although that was great too — but rather, the message behind it. The years preceding the festival had been inundated with moments of tragedy. In addition to the assassinations of prominent figures like Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X, along with the abduction and murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner (the Freedom Summer murders), there was also the Vietnam War, in which many African Americans fought and died for a country that rewarded such service by allowing most to be treated as second-class citizens.
Not that there weren’t a few rays of sunshine, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended Jim Crow (American apartheid) laws nationwide followed shortly by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, meant to enforce the 15th amendment. At the time, both laws provided cause for celebration as they would soon prove to be significant steps towards attaining real freedom. The Harlem Cultural Festival would prove to be another such step.
Festival attendee Darryl Lewis said, “I [had] always related summertime to the potential of violence. Then in 1969, for the first time in what felt like forever, the Harlem Cultural Festival brought forth a new association with the summertime that was all about celebrating freedom, radiating love and positivity.”
In an interview with Sonny Rock, who refers to his music as “freedom music,” he said, “They call it freedom music because it’s what freedom feels like.” The festival was a celebration of this freedom as well as Black pride. One of the most memorable performances from the documentary was by Nina Simone. In the footage she is performing her song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and the audience is singing along in unison.
Dorinda Drake, another festival attendee, reminisces on what Harlem felt like during that summer, “Harlem was heaven to us, it was a place where I was safe, happy, and had life-long friends. Of course, you had those destitute areas they might consider ghetto, but to us Harlem was Camelot.”
Showcasing some incredible musical performances, “Summer of Soul (…OWTRCNBT)” sets the scene of the Harlem Cultural Festival all while reminding viewers of the events that took place around that time. The film highlights the purpose of music in our lives, both for celebration as well as to help us understand and empathize with one another.
In his award-winning directorial debut, Questlove showed us what he is capable of and I, for one, am excited to witness what comes next from this Philadelphia native, as he clearly has a bright future in filmmaking.
“Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” is now showing in theaters and is available to stream on Hulu.