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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)

Very rarely do significant cultural events come along and provide the perfect collage of art, political, social, cultural and racial revolutions of its time. These events can often shape a generation, perpetuating a specific mantra that would be a basis for other generations to aspire to. Woodstock was one of these events. Three days of peace and music, with some of the biggest names in music descending down on a dairy farm in New York, 1969. Most artists would use it as a platform to inspire change and activism during the summer of love at the height of the anti-Vietnam War rhetoric sported by not only the flower child hippies but that of the poor and middle-class as well. Change was in the air, and through Michael Wadleigh’s iconic 1970 music documentary film of the same name, he was able to capture the shifting dynamics of change through its artists and attendants, effectively capturing a generation at the height of their euphoria. But, during that same summer of change and empowerment for multiple generations, another festival took place over in Harlem, New York City spanning over six whole weeks as opposed to just three days. That festival was The Harlem Cultural Festival. And for some reason, it has lived in obscurity since its inception, never reaching the same level of perceived importance as Woodstock as a festival that inspired a generation and subsequent ones since then. Especially considering the line-up of superstars it boasted: Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and The Pips, BB King, Sly and The Family Stone, Herbie Mann, Hugh Masekela, The 5th Dimension, etc.

Woodstock was initially a festival attendees had to pay to get into, but was eventually made free after demand to get in was just too high and dangerous. The Harlem Cultural Festival, however, was free from the get-go, open to anyone and everyone, and over its six-week stint, welcomed over 300 000 attendees to enjoy the sights and sounds it had to offer. Coming at a time of cultural, political and racial discourse, The Harlem Cultural Festival was a much-needed celebration of Black and Latin culture when the powers that be kept on pressing its foot down on the throats of minorities in the USA. The needless war in Vietnam was recruiting and killing more poor black men than white but were still being mistreated as non-desirables by the powers that be despite their sacrifices. Voices of genuine change through civil rights activists and politicians were being killed as said change was on the horizon. The festival came at a vital time when African Americans and people of colour were rightfully furious, providing a chance to heal through the power of music when nothing else seemed to work.

Unlike Woodstock, Summer of Soul doesn’t work as a real-time account of the festival like Wadleigh achieved with his film. Because Woodstock came out a year after the festival happened, virtually no context was needed for audiences. Summer of Love was fresh in the minds of people in 1969, but for some reason, completely faded into obscurity since then, so much so that it appears to have been a myth rather than a real event that actually happened. Towards the end of the film, one of the attendees jokes that he wasn’t crazy, and that this wonderful fantasy he had as a little kid actually happened. “I’m not crazy!” as he watches footage through tears of absolute joy.

Questlove of The Roots' directorial debut is just what you’d expect from a man who is a walking encyclopedia of music. Context is important, and instead of just giving us an amazing concert film showboating his unreal knowledge of music, Questlove sits you down for a history lesson that is vital in understanding why this festival was so important and why it still is. As mentioned before, Wadleigh didn’t need to explain the context in his film as the events were still so fresh in everyone’s minds. The Harlem Cultural Festival was filmed from start to finish, but for some bizarre reason, all the footage just gathered dust in storage, with no one ever seeing any of it until now. Questlove has effectively rescued a lost historical event and brought it to our much-needed attention. Much in the same manner as Watchmen did last year with the Tulsa Massacre, it created a much larger awareness to another dark period in America's history. That’s the power of art and with this documentary, Questlove uses it as a platform to showcase an event that needs to be savoured, remembered and understood as to why it happened and needed to happen in the first place.

“I am black, I am beautiful, I am proud”.

The Harlem Cultural Festival wore this idea proudly as music superstars came to the stage to promote pride and self-love to generations very rarely allowed to do so as hundreds of years of systemic racism aimed to do otherwise. We don’t just hear Nina Simone say this to the crowds of adoring fans, but we see it in practice as each performer comes on stage and comes to realize what this truly means to not only the audience but themselves as well. Questlove intercuts to not only attendees of the festival as they watch this footage for the first time, but he shows it to the artists and organizers who were there as well, from Gladys Knight to members of the 5th Dimension. There are genuinely powerful moments as we see moments of joy and self-reflection from each interviewee as they watch this footage for the first time along with us.

This festival wasn’t just about the music though, it was about representation and celebrating the beauty of one’s racial and cultural differences when they’ve never been given the chance to do it so freely. One festival-goer talks about how, as a small child, seeing so many black faces in one place was completely new to him - like he was among royalty seeing all the beautiful men and women of all shapes and sizes in one place, celebrating and embracing who they are. That is why representation is still so damn important. Films and news around the time (and still to this day) often painted people of colour as criminals and uneducated, but at this festival, it was all about how special these people actually are. “I am black, I am beautiful, I am proud”. It’s not just about strictly black people and culture though, as the festival had days dedicated entirely to Latin music and their culture, with that sentiment proving to be just as fruitful for them as the black attendees and musicians of the festival.

Questlove so very easily could’ve just shown us three hours of spectacular musical performances from the still legendary artists on the line-up bill, and I am hoping we get an extended, or concert cut of the film at some point. But what he wisely does instead, is to offer a glimmer of hope during a time when it was and still is hard to come by for people of colour - a much-needed celebration of Black and Latin pride that is as relatable now as it was for those in attendance.

Questlove brings The Harlem Cultural Festival firmly into its long-delayed and deserved spotlight. It's a vital, insightful film that snapshots a time of cultural and ideological revolutions that needs to be seen and experienced with the best sound and biggest screen available. An ideal companion film to Woodstock, Summer of Soul is not just the best music doccie of the year, it's one of the most essential films of the year.

Where you can watch it: In Theatres on 1st of October (SA), Hulu (USA), In theatres 16th of July (UK), In theatres 2nd of September (Australia).

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