Summer of Soul
Derrick Dunn

Derrick Dunn

Summer of Soul from first time director Questlove is a much needed history lesson

The music extraordinaire Ahmir Khalib Thompson, better known as Questlove, makes a stunning directorial debut with Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). A documentary from Searchlight Pictures, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised,) examines the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which was held at Mount Morris Park in Harlem and lasted for six weeks. Despite having an impressively large attendance and well-known performers such as Stevie Wonder, The 5th Dimension, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and Sly and the Family Stone, the festival was obscured in pop culture. 

Promoters hoped the festival would become known as the Black Woodstock since the events took place simultaneously as the well-known event. However, this was not the case and something that the documentarians wanted to investigate. Questlove utilizes actual footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival shot and later placed in a basement, where it sat for about 50 years unpublished and untouched until now.

I consider myself somewhat of a music buff; however, I had never heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival until the film was announced. One of the things that caught my eye right away was Questlove never appears on the screen. 

Instead, he sits off-screen and allows numerous original attendees of the event to talk about their personal experiences from that day. The attendees included a gentleman who was school age and spoke about seeing beautiful Black people together in one place while adding humorous anecdotes about Fried Chicken and Vaseline. The stories make the documentary come across as very natural and organic.

I loved seeing jokes by comic legend Moms Mabley and Redd Foxx, along with the musical performers I mentioned earlier. I also loved hearing stories about singer Tony Lawrence who hosted and promoted the festival. Lawrence is such a lively character, and I would love to see a biopic or stand-alone documentary that focuses on his accomplishments alone. Naturally, since this is a music documentary, there are great performances throughout. 

A1 performances from Stevie Wonder, The 5th Dimension, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and Sly and the Family Stone had me tapping my feet while I embraced a smile more expansive than a child on Christmas day. However, three performances stood out immensely to me. Fresh from his stint as a Temptation, David Rufin gives a breathtaking performance of “My Girl” worth the price of admission alone. 

While Ruffin has, the well-known rasp in his voice, his tenor comes off lush and buttery smooth during this performance, mainly when he goes into a falsetto range. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone’s performance of “Young, Gifted and Black,” which you may or may not know its title from Lorraine Hansberry’s autobiographical play, To Be Young, Gifted and Black.

As the credits rolled on Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) and the preview audience responded with applause, I cannot help but wonder how many more festivals like this actually exist. Questlove once said, “Music has the power to stop time. But music also keeps time.” Sitting in the film, I never once looked at my watch, as I was immersed in the history I was never taught. Therefore, I hope that audiences have the same experience that I did with the film, as the issues that arise in the time period of this film still go on today. Kudos to Ahmir Khalib Thompson for this film that I highly recommend. 

Final Grade: A+

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) begins streaming on Hulu tomorrow, July 2nd. However, if you are comfortable going to the theater, where the film is also showing, I recommend seeing it on the big screen.

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