‘Summer of Soul’ is a jaw-dropping concert film and remarkable portrait of Harlem in 1969

By Jamel Smith

June 30, 2021

In Langston Hughes’ 1951 poem, “Harlem (A Dream Deferred),” he asks the question: “What happens to a dream deferred?” With a total of eleven lines, the short and pithy poem seeks to answer this question through a series of images: a raisin in the sun, a festering sore, rotten meat, a syrupy sweet, a heavy load, an explosion. Hughes employs the clever use of literary devices to explore the fate of Black Americans in 1950’s Harlem; Black Americans who had the audacity to dream in vain. 

Harlem. A mecca of Black American life. A concentrated, breeding ground for talent and political revolution. A place of great promise waiting to be actualized. In many ways, Hughes prophesied the fate of the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, the six-week music and cultural festival that amassed a crowd of 300,000 people– mostly Black locals– and boasted a superstar roster of acts like Moms Mabley, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Nina Simone, B.B. King, and Mahalia Jackson.

Gladys Knight & the Pips perform at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

This grand performance was taped in technicolor and preserved in pristine condition by its producers, Tony Lawrence and Hal Tulchin, with the hopes of it one day being unearthed. Unfortunately, no interest was shown in the footage. Not even after the reductive framing of the festival as the “Black Woodstock.” 

So what happens to a “dream” deferred? Sometimes, it just lies dormant in a basement for 50 years. 

It’s true. For five decades, the only people who knew about this festival were those who attended. For everyone else, the festival virtually never happened. 

This was definitely the case for Summer of Soul’s director and self-proclaimed “music snob,” Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson who was embarrassed by his ignorance, despite his obsession with all of the aforementioned artists. But the revelation was true; the festival happened and in a major way. 

The six-week music and cultural festival that amassed a crowd of 300,000 people. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

The sin of erasure is what motivated Questlove to spend months with over 40 hours of footage, exhuming the bodies and voices of those who graced the stage in Mount Morris Park during the summer of 1969. What resulted is a jaw-dropping concert film and a remarkable portrait of America in 1969 captured through the lens of Harlem. 

Summer of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) opens with a Stevie Wonder drum solo, which is enough of a visual tagline to sell anyone. From that epic sequence, Summer of Soul continues to tell the forgotten story of the Harlem Cultural Festival in revelatory fashion. Questlove flexes his encyclopedic knowledge and storytelling ability, as he carefully intersperses Tulchin’s concert footage with interviews and historical footage.

The year 1969 was pivotal for America. Americans had feet in Vietnam and on the moon, and Black Power politics dominated the Civil Rights Movement, following the fall of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both cultural moments noticeably radicalized Black celebrity, as well as their works. Marvin Gaye would release his politically charged magnum opus, What’s Going On?, two years later in May 1971. Six months after Gaye, Sly and the Family Stone would release their equally political album There’s A Riot Goin’ On in response.

Sly Stone performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

It is this historical context that shapes the film’s narrative. Not only does Summer of Soul acknowledge the cultural variables that fueled the festival, it also singles out the direct and indirect influence of the festival on culture and music in the years to come. 

Delimiting these social and cultural angles, Summer of Soul exposes the festival’s magic at face value. Every performance is iconic in a way that seems mythical. The film shares first-hand accounts from the festival’s performers and surviving musicians, all of which encapsulate the experience under one sentiment: surreal. 

One of those “surreal” moments came from Mavis Staples singing the hymn “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” with Mahalia Jackson. The riveting performance was introduced by Jesse Jackson, who cited the hymn as “Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite song.” From that moment, it became a song of remembrance and the emotion was palpable and electrifying. 

A young Mavis Staples (left) sings with her idol Mahalia Jackson (right) at the Harlem Cultural Festival. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Harlem, the city theorized as a “a dream deferred,” had experienced the weight of Hughes’ poetic words just a year before through the murder of America’s landmark dreamer, Dr. King. Staples and Jackson’s rendition of the hymn served as a much needed catharsis for everyone present. 

“It was just an unreal moment for me,” Staples said of the performance. 

Aside from the weightiness of the moment, Staples sang with her idol. Mahalia Jackson famously uttered the words, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” to Dr. King moments before his “I Have A Dream” speech. 

Summer of Soul is a never-ending well of moments like the one above. They are kismet. They are electric. They are spiritual. Musically, they are expansive. There is literally something for everyone watching: blues, rock-n-roll, gospel, Motown, R&B and soul, Afro Latin jazz, and comedy. The concentration of talent is so overwhelming that one can’t help but wonder how this footage is just now being seen.

Gladys Knight & the Pips. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

Such an extent of “Black erasure” over the past 50 years has even gaslighted those who were in attendance. Some of the film’s most touching moments are when Questlove interviews individuals who were in the sea of people during the festival. Musa Jackson was one of them. He was four years old when he attended the Harlem Cultural Festival and yet all of his senses still remember those summer days at Mount Morris Park. He remembers smelling “Afro Sheen and fried chicken” in the air; he recalls seeing the “most beautiful Black women” in the sea of people around him; he recollects hearing the pop-soul sounds of The 5th Dimension playing on stage. Even with remembering, Jackson is in tearful awe seeing the footage back.  

“You put memories away and sometimes you don’t even know if they’re real,” said  Jackson to Questlove. “I knew I was not crazy, brother. But now I know I’m not.” 

Summer of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is available to watch on Hulu. 

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