5 Takeaways from Questlove’s Summer of Soul Documentary

*this is part of our full length review of the documentary

Director Questlove’s Summer of Soul takes us into the heart of Harlem, New York, where the most prominent and iconic Black musicians performed over the course of a six-part concert series during the summer of 1969. The footage of those performances is so spectacular, and the film’s commentary so engaging, that viewers will never think about the summer of Woodstock without also remembering the mini revolution that took place downtown at Mount Morris Park in the city. A revolution not televised… until now. Here are our 5 takeaways:

Footage from ‘The Harlem Cultural Festival’ had never been seen until the release of Summer of Soul. 

Basically, Hal Tulchin, who had all the precious footage of the concert series, couldn’t get the funding to put together a commercial project back then. Since Woodstock was getting all the attention at the time, Tulchin says he tried promoting the Harlem festival as the ‘Black Woodstock’, but still “nobody was interested in it.” It’s hard for us to comprehend a world in which nobody was interested in these spectacular performances… but somehow that was the reality 50 years ago.

The festival was partially designed to ‘turn down the temperature’ in New York City after a decade marred by violence and disillusionment. 

JFK was assassinated in ‘63. Malcolm X in ‘65. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in ‘68. Robert Kennedy later in ‘68. Following the assassination of MLK, widespread violence and rioting broke out across the country, which later became know as the Holy Week Uprising. Then there was the Vietnam War, which disproportionately affected Black Americans. Fred Hampton, a leader of the Black Panthers, summarized how his community felt at the time: “Black America has lost faith in this country – many of us have seen too many of our leaders get killed.” Darryl Lewis, one of the festival’s attendees we see in the film, believes the Harlem festival was born out of this fragile moment in history: “the Harlem festival may very well have been to keep Black folks from burning up the city in 1969.

Many concert-goers found the festival more relevant than the Apollo 11 moon landing, which also happened that summer. 

While Pops Staples and The Staples Singers sing in the background, we see a montage of clips showing White and Black Americans’ reactions to the news that  the country has landed on the moon. Their contrasting responses are telling. While White Americans saw it as cause for celebration, the Black men and women interviewed questioned America’s priorities; their reactions were along the lines of: “they’re spending all that money on getting white men to the moon while Black people are going hungry in our communities?”

The festival would never have happened without the emcee Tony Lawrence. 

The Harlem Cultural Festival was Tony Lawrence’s big idea. The lounge singer, concert promoter, and hustler used his contagious enthusiasm to win the support of the Parks department, the New York City mayor John Lindsay, and everyone one else you’d possibly need approval from in order to put on a major six-part outdoor event series. And dammit, he did it. (And he even got Maxwell House coffee as a sponsor).

It’s emotional watching the artists and fans who were at the festival watch the tape for the first time. 

This one is pretty self-explanatory. These are the most beautiful moments of the documentary.


*Photo credit: Daniel Dorsa

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