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Summer of Soul (or when the revolution could not be televised) Review by Kendall Ricks

Have you heard of Woodstock? Well, of course you have. It’s one of the most iconic music festivals in American history. Although it was only three days, Woodstock is well known because of the tense political environment which surrounded it. Free-spirited hippies gathered in protest of the Vietnam War and establishment in general. But did you also know that just 100 miles away in Harlem, there was a music festival of the same magnitude, if not larger that was completely forgotten? That was until Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson stepped in.

In his Oscar-winning directorial debut, Thompson covered the Harlem Cultural Festival, a five-weekend music festival in Mount Morris Park. Organized by a black man named Tony Lawrence, the festival drew hundreds of thousands of black people to the heart of Harlem in a time of mourning and celebration.

Much like the festival that shall not be named from here on out, the Harlem Cultural Festival was about much more than just music. The documentary begins by explaining the political context in which the festival took place. The sixties were a tumultuous time for America and a devastating time for black people. It saw the murders of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, and Martin Luther King Jr. With no one to look to, young black people took matters into their own hands, forming more militant groups like the Black Panthers and demanding their rights. Black people were angry and grieving. The festival offered a reprieve. It leaves you wondering how a park filled with hundreds of Black people coming together to celebrate Black culture could just be forgotten.

Uncovered footage revealed the prolific nature of the festival. In it, waves of black bodies and faces rejoice in the celebration of their culture. Spliced with interviews of former festival attendees and performers, much of the documentary is composed of long videos of the festival itself. The emotions of the performers range from catharsis to pain to joy. The response from the audience is visceral. It is so powerful that you don’t even need to hear any narration. The story is in the performances themselves.

The Fifth Dimension headlined the first weekend of the festival, singing their signature dreamy pop songs. The second weekend was gospel weekend, and the headliner was Mahalia Jackson. The park quieted as she belted out familiar hymns that saw black people through slavery and was seeing them through Jim Crow. The next weekend was headlined by a young Stevie Wonder who recalled that time being pivotal in his career as he began to speak out for civil rights. On the fourth weekend, Latino performers took the stage. Mongo Santamaria and Ray Barreto and the Harlem Festival Calypso Band performed, representing the Latin American diaspora. And on the last weekend of performances, powerhouses Nina Simone and B.B. King performed. It was at the Harlem Cultural Festival that Nina Simone first performed her song “Young, Gifted, and Black.”

The performances at the festival showed the diversity of black music. Audiences gathered to listen to pop music and gospel music and blues.

It’s shocking that such a historic moment in Black American history was almost erased. The black panthers worked as security, the mayor of New York City spoke there, Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder performed, and we all just forgot. Summer of Soul doesn’t just speak to the importance of Black History, but it speaks to the importance of documentary filmmaking. If it weren’t for this documentary, the Harlem Cultural Festival would have been forgotten.

Summer of Soul is a film about the resilience of the Black community and the role music plays in Black culture. Ultimately, it reminds us that music is a source of healing and a source of joy, and for Black people, healing and joy are a form of radical resistance.

Written by Kendall Ricks

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Jul 18, 2022

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