Questlove’s ‘Summer of Soul’ examines the Harlem Cultural Festival which took place in the same summer as Woodstock

 By Jamel Smith

April 28, 2021

The first trailer for the documentary Summer of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) debuted in grand fashion during the 93rd Academy Awards. The film also marks another grand debut for first-time director, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. 

Summer of Soul unveils and examines the events of the Harlem Cultural Festival– unjustly nicknamed as the “Black Woodstock”– it took place in the summer of 1969. Over the span of six weeks, 300,000 people gathered at Harlem’s Mount Morris Park to commune, sing, and dance to the grooves and lyrics of Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight, Nina Simone, B.B. King, Mahalia Jackson, and more.  

Nina Simone from ‘Summer of Soul’ directed by Questlove.

As the film title suggests, and director Questlove confirmed, the historical footage sat in a basement for 50 years and has never been seen. Diagnosed as a case of erasure, the importance of the Harlem Cultural Festival was overshadowed by that of Woodstock, which took place only 100 miles away and two weeks after. For the documentary, Questlove unearthed the lost footage of the historical festival to highlight its indelible legacy on Black American music, fashion, and culture. 

In an interview with Variety, Questlove expounded on the cultural impact the festival could have had: “Woodstock, the city name alone, just defines a whole movement. And I kept wondering what would have gone down if this were allowed to happen for [Black people]. If this were allowed to unfurl and spread across the world as Woodstock did, how much of a difference could that have made in my life as a music lover and as a music collector? So, then I just felt this sense of purpose that I have to tell the story.” 

Still from Harlem Cultural Festival in ‘Summer of Soul’

Summer of Soul is Questlove’s foray into feature film directing. However, he is no stranger to offering commentary on music and culture. He is the host of Questlove Supreme, a fun and educational weekly podcast that digs deep into the stories of musical legends and cultural icons, and the co-founder of online hip-hop and alternative music website and community, Okayplayer. He has also appeared in countless music documentaries: Bad 25, Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off The Wall, Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown, Mr. Soul, and Finding The Funk, for which he was also co-executive producer. 

Self-proclaimed as a man with “fifty jobs,” Questlove holds an impressive track record as a musician and artist. For those who are not familiar with his résumé, he might be best known as the drummer for Grammy Award-winning hip hop group The Roots, as well as the musical director for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. In addition, he has served as main collaborator and producer for artists such as, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Common, Elvis Costello, Al Green, John Legend, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jay-Z, and Fiona Apple, to name a few. His most recent job was behind the turntables, serving as musical director for the 93rd Academy Awards. 

Director of ‘Summer of Soul’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. Photo: Joe Mabel

Completed during the pandemic, Summer of Soul opened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film amassed rave reviews and won both the grand jury prize and audience award in the documentary categories. The Sundance darling was also acquired by Disney’s Searchlight Pictures for more than $12 million, marking the biggest price tag for any documentary in the festival’s history. 

Questlove’s debut film, Summer of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) will be released both theatrically and on Hulu July 2.

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