Summer of Soul: New film revives lost ‘Black Woodstock’ gig series

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In the summer of 1969: Armstrong walks on the Moon. Woodstock becomes the defining moment of the counterculture movement. And Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Jackson, and BB King play to a combined crowd of quite 300,000 people at The Harlem Cultural Festival.

Two of those events have adorned the covers of 20th Century history books ever since. The third has been about forgotten.

Until now.

A new award-winning documentary, The Summer of Soul, aims to right what it believes to be a significant cultural wrong; the very fact that what could are the “Black Woodstock” has been largely ignored for quite half a century.

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The film’s director Ahmir Thompson, aka Questlove, says The Harlem Cultural Festival being forgotten about is a component of “the all-too-common erasure of black history”.

Questlove is best referred to as the drummer for The Roots, currently the house band on Jimmy Fallon’s US chat show. He also DJs at this year’s Oscars and maybe a professor at any University, where he’s an expert in African-American music History. He was shocked that he had never heard of this event, one that he now believes to be of giant importance.

Speaking passionately from NY, the star explains how in 2017, out of the blue, two film producers, Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein, presented him with 40 hours of footage from this festival, which happened over six Sundays from June to August 1969, in New York’s Mount Morris Park.

He is keen to share the backstory, all of which was new to him.

“The Harlem Cultural Festival was an occasion thrown by two gentlemen, Tony Lawrence [who booked the acts] and by Hal Tulchin [who filmed it],” he tells BBC News. “They somehow managed to collect a number of the mavericks of their day. We’re talking about Stevie Wonder. Nina Simone, Sly and Family Stone, Ray Barretto, Olatunji, Hugh Masekela, Edwin Hawkins Singers, BB King, comedians, politicians, everybody was there.”

‘Sitting within the basement’
The reason why Questlove then many others haven’t heard of this series of concerts is what happened, or rather didn’t happen, next.

“The event is preserved professionally on tape and not one producer or outlet is curious about seeing the footage or making it worldwide known or distributing,” he continues. “So, what finishes up happening is that this film just sits within the basement for 50 years.”

While Woodstock was immortalized in an Oscar-winning documentary, helping to form it famous around the world, The Harlem Cultural Festival was only broadcast within the sort of two one-hour highlights shows on an area ny television station and never repeated.

The 50-year basement Questlove was speaking about belonged to Tulchin, who filmed the event. The TV veteran was approached over the years by potential documentary makers and therefore the footage lodged with the US Library of Congress, but nothing came of it. Then shortly before his death in 2017 he signed a contract for all 40 hours to be employed by the team behind Summer of Soul.

The footage is remarkable, showing everything from the enjoyment of Stevie Wonder playing a drum solo under an umbrella during a downpour, to the intensity of the vocable section of Nina Simone’s performance, where she asks the audience if they’re “ready to smash white things, to burn buildings?”.

The dayglow color schemes on show throughout the concerts also increase the entire vibrancy of the documentary.

‘Gave me goosebumps
Questlove says that despite never having directed before, he was chosen because the producers viewed him as a storyteller.

“I’d say it took me five months, just to measure with the footage. After five months of just constantly having these monitors in my house in every room, my house, my kitchen, my bathroom, my bedroom, I kept it on a 24-hour loop. That’s all I watched. and that I kept notes on anything that gave me goosebumps. And what I aroused doing was curating it, like I curate a show or DJ gig.”

Summer of Soul, which won the 2021 Sundance Documentary jury Prize, maybe a lot quite a concert film though. It uses the event to look at the extent to which 1969 was a turning point for black identity.

“Up until that time we were ashamed to be called African,” explains Questlove.

“If you actually wanted to call somebody an insulting name within the black community, you called them African, then be prepared for a fight. That’s how deep this type of self-hate was embedded in us since you know since centuries ago. And so, what finishes up happening is in 1969, there becomes a paradigm shift.”

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