Of 1969, a year rich in events, the Americans especially remembered the first step of the Man on the Moon, the Woodstock festival and that, which ended in blood, of Altamont… But a memorable festival was also took place in Harlem (New York) that year, which no one has heard of, to the point that some participants were not far from thinking they had dreamed it.
Fifty years later, the documentary summer of soul unearths its colorful images and brings this “ultimate black barbecue“, as summed up with tenderness a participant, who, then aged 5, had never seen so many of his fellow creatures together.
During the summer of 1969, there were thousands of them (300,000 in total), every Sunday for six weeks, crowding into an open-air park at the Harlem Cultural Festival, where admission was free. A joyful human tide of African-Americans of all ages come to applaud, sing and swing to the sound of a gaggle of soul, jazz, blues, funk, gospel, pop or Latin names.
Judge for yourself: Stevie Wonder, jumping seated behind his keyboard and seen for the first time trying his hand at a drum solo (he was then 19, a marvel), Nina Simone imperial at the piano as well as at the microphone, determined to restore confidence to the black community, Sly & The Family Stone and their psychedelic funk then so bold and attractive, to the point of making the black public admit that yes, a white drummer is not necessarily ridiculous. Or Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples allied for a day for a breathtakingly powerful gospel duo. Not to mention Gladys Knight and the Pips, BB King, The Staples Singers, Ray Barretto, Max Roach, The 5th Dimension, Edwin Hawkins (who triumphed internationally with Oh Happy Days) etc…
How could a festival of this scale, filmed with care in addition, fall into the dustbin of history with such ease? And why did the Woodstock festival, emblematic of the hippie era, which was held a few days later less than 200 kilometers away, remain so significant in the imagination?
It turns out that the 40 hours of rushes that testified to this exceptional moment in Harlem did not interest anyone, nor any media. They therefore gathered dust for 50 years in a basement, until the drummer of the hip-hop group The Roots, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, discovered their existence and decided to share them with the whole world by making this documentary, his first. For him, it was crucial to show all these artists at the peak of their art, but also the springs of the erasure of memory and black culture in the United States.
As for Woodstock’s eternal aura, Questlove has a theory on that. “Woodstock itself was not decisive. What was was the movie about Woodstock“, he reasons in an interview with Pitchfork. “What made Woodstock great was the fact that we were told that Woodstock was great.“
By repairing the oversight of the Harlem Cultural Festival, whose Black Panthers provided security and where the Reverend Jesse Jackson spoke, Questlove is doing militant work with summer of soul, subtitle… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised in reference to Gil Scott-Heron. It rehabilitates both a major event for black artists and musicians, while placing the event in its context of political, social and cultural ferment for the African-American community.
To do this, he punctuates his film with relevant archive images, those of demonstrations for civil rights and testimonies of festival-goers collected at the time for CBS Evening News. It also makes artists and participants react to 50 years of distance. “We wanted freedom now“, recalls a festival-goer. “It wasn’t just the music“, assures the singer Gladys Knight, “we wanted change“.
Thus, between two excerpts from joyful concerts, the style of dress and the advent of new Afro hairstyles are discussed as much as politics, with the benevolent attitude of the (white) progressive Republican mayor John Lindsay, a little over a year old after the assassination of Martin Luther King and the revolt that followed. The question of drugs, in particular heroin which was decimating Harlem at that time, finds its place there as much as linguistics – 1969 was indeed “the year when the Negro died and where the black was born“, including printed in the pages of the prestigious New York Times, reminds us of the movie.
As Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, magnetizing the eyes of the world to the stars, Stevie Wonder’s on-stage mention of the Apollo mission garnered nothing but boos at the Harlem Cultural Festival. “We don’t care about the Moon, rather put some of that cash in Harlem“, launched a festival-goer. He is still waiting.
“Summer of Soul” by Ahmir Questlove Thompson (1h56) is available in France from July 30, 2021 on Disney+