Unintentionally, my picks this month have featured a subtheme of music and its power in political activism. They also connect Lin-Manuel Miranda and members of The Roots, as Lin-Manuel and his father are interviewed here (and Black Thought had a brief cameo in tick, tick…BOOM!). This week, however, our story isn’t inspired by a true story…it is a true story. Time for a documentary, the ideal film to bring up at cocktail parties and book clubs.
Summer of Soul
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
This documentary tells the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a huge celebration of Black music and identity that was largely erased from history.
When the Harlem Cultural Festival was held during the summer of 1969, it was the event for the Black community of New York City. A celebration of Black music and culture at a time when the Civil Rights movement was at a crossroads, the event was ultimately overshadowed by Woodstock. Largely forgotten until the making of this documentary, archival footage and contemporary interviews recreate the festival and underscore its significance.
Starting off with an incredible lineup from Stevie Wonder to Mavis Staples, the 5th Dimension to Nina Simone, the festival wasn’t only an opportunity to hear a young Gladys Knight’s soulful sounds (though how amazing, right?). The massive gathering also represented an opportunity for the Black community of Harlem to come together and heal in light of trauma related to the Vietnam War and political assassinations of the decade, include the fairly recent murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the wake of grief, it was a time when the Civil Rights movement seemed to be splintering, and the fundamental split between violence and non-violence only deepened. There was a sense that revolution was coming, and a reevaluation of Blackness was on the horizon. Some speculated that the ultimate purpose of the festival was to ease tensions and prevent a riot.
Tony Lawrence was the organizer and host of the festival, described as a hustler and schmoozer in the best sense. Through his influence, some of the biggest acts of the time performed at the festival, and the mayor of NYC at the time, John Lindsay, made an appearance.
In addition to the performances, there are some excellent interviews, including from artists and attendees. The commentary from the Fifth Dimension is particularly moving, as Marilyn McCoo explains it was meaningful for the group to perform as their music was often not considered “Black enough.” Mavis Staples’ perspective on her father’s Blues stylings and her own due with her hero Mahalia Jackson at the festival make for fascinating stories as well.
The documentary is great about interweaving cultural, artistic, and historical elements together to enhance our understanding of the festival. The crossover between Latin and African music, and Afro-Caribbean influences get attention and analysis. At the same time, we dive into perspectives on the moon landing, the heroin epidemic, and struggles for liberation in African nations at the time.
Because the festival was largely forgotten until this documentary was made, the film is both an artistic work and act of historical and cultural preservation.
4/5 Pink Panther Heads
Hmmmm, I’ve never felt more like I’ve written a book report on the blog than with this review. I find it much more difficult to review a documentary than other films, especially one about a time in history where I have a significant number of gaps in knowledge. There were a lot of performers I didn’t recognize at all, not aided by the fact that many have fallen into relative obscurity. Truthfully, I’m not into religion in the least, but I do love the gospel sound, and I did appreciate the songs in that vein.
What’s most impressive to me about this film is that it does a great deal to recreate the experience of being there at the festival in real time. Beyond that, it also contextualizes things so we can appreciate not only what the festival meant at the time, but the broader significance it holds. One criticism to this approach is that we really just skim the surface on certain themes and events, as the film runs slightly under 2 hours.