In Harlem during the summer of 1969 something big was happening. Tens of thousands of people came together in Mount Morris Park to attend the first Harlem Cultural Festival, a festival that put Black art on full, proud display. The music played crossed genres, from the pop-y Stevie Wonder to the more soulful Nina Simone, and even transcended linguistic division, with musicians such as the South African Babatunde Olatunji. The purpose of the festival was to promote Black pride, providing a platform for Black artists to, for the first time, share their work with an impoverished and oppressed community. Despite 40 hours of this momentous occasion being recorded, this footage was left abandoned, unseen, to rot in a basement for over 50 years. Until now.
Summer of Soul, which seamlessly interweaves original festival footage with contemporary interviews and news footage from the time, is truly brilliant. To say that the film merely shows the absolute talent of many of these performers would be an incredible understatement – the film positively resurrects them. Of course, I am not implying that such talents as Gladys Knight or Sly and the Family Stone have been lost to time, but that this film drags them forward into the present. They are no longer relics of the past, but right there, performing to you today, with all the energy and heart that they could possibly give. It’s a truly beautiful sight to see. There is a reason why all of these musicians are called performers, they absolutely know how to put on a show with such joyous and energetic choreography that you too get swept into their music, their lyricism, their passion for a brighter future. You become just another audience member at one of the most powerful concerts of the 20th century, dancing with the furious excitement of any other member of the crowd.
Witnessing such eclectic performances makes for an unforgettable experience. While I am now absolutely obsessed with the Summer of Soul playlist on Spotify, it just can’t compare to the incredible nature of their live performances. A young Stevie Wonder, just 19, jumping around on stage and playing the keyboard with such immense dexterity and unobstructed passion, really clarifies his musical genius. Equally, Sly’s incredible stage presence and apparent sex appeal makes it clear that he walked so Prince could run. Our musical history is linked to our musical present. If Summer of Soul shows us anything, it’s that we truly are standing on the shoulders of giants.
It’s not just the music, though. The film works to regularly contextualise its very moment. It is a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King; four years after the assassination of Malcolm X. The police are regularly attacking and abusing Black citizens, particularly in impoverished areas like Harlem, areas which often seemed to be abandoned by a state which cared very little about its non-white citizens. It is a year after Nixon was elected; it is the month of the moon landing. It feels like America is moving forward, but trying to leave its Black citizens behind. To say that the cultural atmosphere was tense would be an understatement: this fact was even pretty plain at the festival itself where, despite having police at security, the festival organisers felt the need to call in the Black Panthers too – “just in case.”
While the film obviously intends to document a music festival, it also documents an immense turning point for Black America, when people no longer defined themselves as “negro” but “Black”. This period represents a desperate search for an identity independent of the country which seemed to actively reject them. This is not only reflected in the more Afrocentric fashion of the time or the changing politics in black spaces, but in the very music itself. The sound of the era, captured here so well, is both optimistic and demanding, religious and secular, songs that called for peace alongside those that called for war. They wanted more, as we do now.
The truth is, while a lot has changed since 1969, the sentiment remains the same, the cultural tension has persisted. African Americans want more, Black people globally want more, we all want more from a system that continues to regularly ignore or attack those who don’t have power. This film could not have come at a better moment. If anything, Summer of Soul only emphasises that this is the time for change. We have come too far to stop now.
There’s a world waiting for you, this is a quest that’s just begun.
This documentary, unlike many others which seem to fetishise Black suffering, places Black joy front and centre, celebrating talent and progress without ignoring the injustices that many also faced. I cannot recommend seeing Summer of Soul highly enough. The editing, the music, the performances, the message… it may have all been buried and ignored for half a century, but that doesn’t mean you should delay seeing it now.
Summer of Soul is in cinemas and available on Hulu now.