Questlove’s ‘Summer of Soul’ Brings Hidden History of the Harlem Cultural Festival to the Masses

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s directorial film debut shows the festival as a political statement and the elevation of Black thought and revolution. See the film at Cinema Detroit this weekend.

New York in the summer of 1969 had two major events — one, Woodstock, which is still talked about to this day, and the other, the Harlem Cultural Festival, which we’re just learning about

Taking place at Mount Morris Park (now, Marcus Garvey Park) just 100 miles south of the Woodstock Festival grounds, the Harlem Cultural Festival was a pulsating and soul-energizing one-time event that spread across six weekends in the steamy summer. Singer Tony Lawrence organized the festival and it was filmed by television producer Hal Tulchin. But, unlike Woodstock, no one was interested in broadcasting the material and nearly 40 hours of footage was stored in a New York basement for almost 50 years. That is, until Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer and frontman of The Roots and a DJ, got his eyes and ears on the footage in 2017 and was determined to bring this hidden history to the masses. 

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Marking his directorial film debut, “Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” is laced with never-before-seen concert performances from Black artists at the peak of their careers. Artists include Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & The Pips, David Ruffin, Sly & The Family Stone, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, The Staple Singers, The 5th Dimension and many more. The festival drew an audience of roughly 300,000 people. 

“This film is remarkable. It has everything. It’s funky. It’s soulful. It’s poignant,” describes Dave Mesrey, a Metro Times reporter who recently reviewed the film. “The colors of everyone’s clothes just pop off the screen. But it’s a heavy documentary, too. The message is very poignant.” 

In “Summer of Soul,” the dynamic performances guide the contextual weight that ties in archival footage, commentary and memories from festival goers about the social constructs, violence and oppression the Black community faced in Harlem and around the world throughout the ’60s. This tone is also set against the political backdrop of Richard Nixon’s presidency and nationwide coverage of the first man to land on the moon. 

Questlove bridges performance and story with an appealing aesthetic that doesn’t distract but complements and amplifies the experience while drawing attention to the elevation of Black consciousness, spirituality and rage that lets loose through intense and free guitar riffs, drum solos, soul-hitting music and amazing singing. The Harlem Cultural Festival was revolutionary and real. 

“Me being a DJ is exactly what informed me on how to tell this story,” Questlove said in a virtual press conference for the film. “This isn’t the only story out there. Probably the most shocking thing that I’ve learned in the last month is that there’s about six to seven others. Maybe this film can be an entry, sort of a sea change for these stories to finally get out [and] really for us to acknowledge that even something as one of the first-ever Black festivals is important to our history.” 

“Summer of Soul” will screen at Cinema Detroit throughout the weekend, starting July 2. 

Listen: The poignant message of ‘Summer of Soul.’

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  • Amanda LeClaire
    Amanda LeClaire is an award-winning host and producer of CultureShift on 101.9 WDET-FM Detroit’s NPR station. She’s a founding producer of WDET’s flagship news talk show Detroit Today, and a former host/reporter for Arizona Public Media. Amanda is also an artist, certified intuitive and energy healer, and professional tarot reader.
  • LaToya Cross