1969 Harlem Culture Festival Fuels ‘Summer Of Soul’

Most people have heard of Woodstock but most have never heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival which happened that same summer of 1969. The new movie “Summer of the soul“access a treasure trove of never-before-seen footage and interview people who were there to create a living documentary about the event.

For six weeks in 1969, a veteran television producer Hal Tulchin filmed the Harlem Cultural Festival. Then the footage stayed in his basement for 50 years because he couldn’t interest anyone in making a documentary out of it.

1969 Harlem Culture Festival Fuels ‘Summer Of Soul’

Hear this story from Beth Accomando.

Now musician and first director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson has crafted a film that both celebrates this incredible event and places it in a larger context. Thompson could have simply string together musical performances from a concert film that would have saved the event from the obscurity in which he languished. But he wanted to do more and the result is an exhilarating documentary that both captures a moment in time and assesses its value.

Thompson opens his film not with footage from the festival but rather with a shot of someone who was at the festival watching footage from the event that he had never seen before. The surge of emotion we see is simply magnificent and says more about the meaning and importance of the event than mere words could convey. Later in the movie Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. of The Fifth Dimension also look at footage with a similar response and it’s touching.

Musa Jackson attended the festival when he was little and remembered, “It was the ultimate black barbecue and then there was the music that made you feel like it was so much bigger.”

Jackson also noted the impact of seeing 50,000 blacks gathered in one place to celebrate black culture.

The film reminds us that the festival took place after America witnessed the murders of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy and Malcolm X. It was a time of social upheaval, of power. black, fashion influenced by Africa and a young generation eager for change. The film captures both the hope and the rage that fueled the 1960s.

One of the best sequences intersects the musical performances with the moon landing, then contrasts the reactions of white Americans with those of blacks at the festival. White respondents all express pride and enthusiasm, but black respondents point out how this money could have been better spent helping African American communities. That sentiment would be conveyed eloquently the following year with Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” (a song and sentiment that was put to good use in the HBO series “Lovecraft Country”).

“Summer of Soul” is smartly and passionately crafted. It delivers a vibrant portrait of an event that showcased a wide range of black culture, then places that celebration in the turbulent political context of the 1960s. So take a trip back in time and immerse yourself in this glorious film.


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Darcy J. Skinner

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