Film beautifully portrays 1969 celebration of Black culture
Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson perform at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, featured in the documentary ‘Summer of Soul.’ Photo courtesy Searchlight Pictures.
If you look up “Summer of Soul” (or “When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised”) on Metacritic, you will find that the ratings of this phenomenal documentary—a first directing effort by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson—has evoked “universal acclaim” from critics. And rightly so. But let us pause to reflect on what the trajectory of this particular work of art has to teach us about our collective selves--what it takes for Black artists to gain recognition in this country, and the losses that accompany every hard-fought gain.
Visionary New York promoter and entertainer Tony Lawrence conceived and organized a series of free concerts over six weekends in 1969, dubbed the Harlem Cultural Festival. The project required vision—it was held at what was then known as Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) and drew a combined total of 300,000 people in a dazzling celebration of Black culture that was unique for the time. New York Mayor John Lindsey supported the project and, when the New York Police Department refused to provide security for the artists, the Black Panther Party stepped in.
B.B. King performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, featured in the documentary 'Summer of Soul.' Photo courtesy Searchlight Pictures.
The event was an unqualified success. Acts as diverse as the Fifth Dimension (then at the top of the pop charts), Stevie Wonder (then 19 and pounding out a remarkable drum solo and astounding keyboard work), a youthful Gladys Knight and the Pips flashing Motown moves, the Edwin Hawkins Singers delivering their hit rendition of “O Happy Day, “ gospel legends Mahalia Jackson and the Staples Singers, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, and blues great B.B. King performed to buoyant crowds, and television producer Hal Tulchin captured 40 hours of footage. It all happened the same summer as Woodstock—and as director Thompson has pointed out, had the Harlem Cultural Festival involved any of the excesses of that better-known event, it might have attracted more, albeit negative, attention. Tulchin tried for many years to attract funding to turn the footage into a television special or documentary film, dubbing the event “Black Woodstock.” But no one was interested. The footage tragically sat in his basement for almost 50 years.
Thompson’s background as a drummer, bandleader, D.J., and music historian makes him the ideal person to bring us this cast-aside treasure. These 50 years later, he knows what he’s got, and knows how to maximize its impact—in a skillful two hours, he shows us an array of jaw-dropping performances, and splices them with just the right amount of context to keep us hungry and amazed. We understand that this is all happening one year after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy, four years after the assassination of Malcolm X in Harlem. We are reminded of the uprisings across American cities, including Manhattan, the previous year, and understand that the necessary government support for this event may have been motivated by a desire to keep Harlem residents peaceful and occupied. We understand where this is happening—in Harlem, an epicenter of emerging Black fashion and culture and also government neglect, poverty, and problematic drug use. Tulchin’s five cameras offer us glorious access to the beautiful crowds of Black faces of all ages, beaming and moving to the music, “the ultimate Black barbecue,” in the words of one witness. It’s a Blacker crowd than many of these artists ever got to experience, and we see how that impacts their performances.
One can’t experience this film and miss the importance of what is happening here—including that almost no one, including Thompson himself, had ever heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival before this film. He wants us to understand that what happened here was revolutionary—and, as reflected by the film’s subtitle (a nod to Gil Scott-Heron’s wonderful lyric, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” well worth a listen just now)—that what happened those six weekends in 1969 was part of a transformative and powerful awakening, and that like many transformative and powerful awakenings before and since, it could not, would not be televised. That was not neutral. It cost the artists, who missed out on the boost from exposure that came to the Woodstock artists. It cost the millions of us who could have witnessed and been healed by this offering of Black brilliance long before now. And yet, with the characteristic resilience of Black culture, more Black brilliance has resurrected it for us.
And now it meets with universal acclaim.
There is so much here to savor. Thompson has cannily offered us glimpses into the reactions of some of these artists to watching this footage after 50 years—Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. of the Fifth Dimension watch, visibly moved, remembering what it meant to perform for this audience, having been criticized by Black people for not being Black enough because of their success on the pop charts. Gladys Knight recalls the revolutionary fervor that welled up in her as a young artist. Mavis Staples speaks of what it meant to her to share a microphone with her idol, Mahalia Jackson, and describes the context for a moving passing of the torch. Rev. Jesse Jackson, who also was there and introduced their joint rendition of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” the off-requested favorite of the recently murdered Dr. King, gives a glimpse of the toil, suffering, and courage aligning across generations in that moment of shared struggle. Nina Simone, though not here to narrate a reflection, speaks directly and just as resonantly all these years later when she pointedly asks the assembled crowd, “Are you ready, Black people?” and intones, with purpose, “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.”
Let us not overlook the more difficult parts of what is offered here by Thompson and his many collaborators past and present, including Tony Lawrence (who cut an impressive figure presiding over the proceedings in an impressive array of suits and costumes but who faded into obscurity within a few short years). This gorgeous, heartfelt thing happened. A revolution was happening; it was felt, and even captured on film. It was, as one witness describes, “like a rose coming up through concrete.” And then that rose was crushed, erased—and now, after all this time, resurrected. One of the most moving things for me was watching the reactions of Musa Jackson, a man who was present at the event when he was six years old, and who speaks with particular joy of his experience and of how smitten his six-year-old self was with Marilyn McCoo. In the end, he marvels through tears at seeing his memories resurrected in the film. “I knew I was not crazy—but now I know I’m not. And not only that—how beautiful it was.”
As someone who knows the pain of beautiful offerings ignored and erased, Jackson’s joy stirred my own hopes. Even when the revolution cannot be televised, perhaps it will not be erased forever.
Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie and theater review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her review blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.