The festival we never saw on TV makes its film debut for all the right reasons.
While the Woodstock festival was happening in 1969, another festival took place 100 miles away. It was known as the Harlem Cultural Festival, and it featured a sea of African-Americans (over 300,000 people), who attended to see such legends as Stevie Wonder and Sly and the Family Stone, among others, perform. It was filmed, but it was left in the basement, which means it has never been televised before, until Questlove decided to bring it out in the open in his directorial debut of the documentary “Summer of Soul (….Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).”
It uses its music segments to keep people dancing in their seats with all their favorite classic hits. Sure some go on too, long, but there are great songs playing on stage. But also, it speaks its mind of what was going through the minds of the people who attended the festival. It’s full of culture, reality, and diversity, and wakes us up in the process. It’s something to see on either Hulu or in a movie theater, depending on whether or not you’ve vaccinated or how you prefer to watch movies. Either way, it’s exhilarating.
The festival was hosted and promoted by Tony Lawrence, a New York night club singer, who wanted to form it with the right musicians and the right crowd. He got the city (particularly Mayor John Lindsay) to let him pull it off, because he knew his words wisely. To coin a phrase, he talked the talk and walked the walk.
We get interviewees from Harlem residents to Black Panther Party members to iconic legends as Rev. Al Shaprton, Chris Rock, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who all share their aspects of what went down after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, which lead to violent protests, and what’s going on during JFK’s assassination, the Apollo 11 mission, and the Vietnam War. Those are historic moments happening during an event that most people never heard of. I’ve never heard of it, but now that I saw “Summer of Soul,” I do.
You also get Billy Davis, Jr. and Marilyn McCoo of The 5th Dimension talking about how they combined “Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In” into one song, and how black music was distinguished from white music back in the day. And even Motown music, Puerto Rico music, and Gospel music all joined in on the festivities. “A Universal Language,” one might say.
Let’s face it. This festival was so cultural and fun, I can’t believe this wasn’t introduced until now, and it couldn’t have come in a more timely fashion. Murders, adult cartoons telling white actors to stop voicing racial characters, and protests-all the elements that makes history want to repeat itself. “Summer of Soul” is one of those examples about wanting to fight the power. In this case, however, it wants to inform people that the Harlem Cultural Festival happened, and it got the sh*t end of the stick, because Woodstock was the most iconic concert event in history.
I’m a film critic, who sticks up for independent films-ones that don’t get the kind of admiration bigger movies to-so I can totally see what the fans are getting at. I may not be in their shoes, but I still admire their poetry and speeches about what is going on. This concert wasn’t prompting violence or protests, but rather an opportunity for cultures to get together, be themselves, and have a fun time.
Questlove brings everything together-the interviewees and archival footage-to remind the world what was going on behind Woodstock’s back. You also have to thank Tony Lawrence for using his words and inspiration to bring this concert to life. You need to see this movie for yourselves and acknowledge its era and independence.
In Theaters and Streaming on Hulu