Winner of two top prizes at Sundance, “Summer of Soul” takes viewers into the forgotten Harlem concert series in 1969. Over the course of six weeks, thousands gathered for the Harlem Culture Festival featuring many of the decade’s hottest acts.
Directed and executive produced by “Questlove,” aka Ahmir Thompson of The Roots, the “Summer of Soul” is not your average documentary. Now in theaters and streaming on Hulu, the two-hour documentary channels the energy and power of a critical moment in American culture.
To call the “Summer of Soul,” an emotional experience is an understatement. Forty hours of footage are distilled into a two-hour exploration into the festival, with commentary from attendees and some musicians themselves.
More than a concert series, the Harlem Culture Festival was an opportunity to spread joy and reaffirm Black self-determination. The beauty and power of Black culture were on full display and then ignored by a media fixated on Woodstock and the moon landing.
Capturing the full essence of Harlem, the six-week festival celebrated musical acts from across the diaspora, including the Motown Sound, Jazz, and the sounds of East Harlem. NPR reported that no TV outlet would air the footage captured by Director Hal Tulchin. Tulchin passed away in 2017, but the care he put into his craft shines through in “Summer of Soul.”
Through the footage captured by Tulchin, Questlove gave viewers so much more than a lesson in music history. The spirit of the Harlem Culture Festival comes alive through a mixture of festival footage and present-day interviews.
Staged in Marcus Garvey Park (formerly known as Mount Morris Park), the six-week festival had a phenomenal roster including Gladys Knight and the Pips, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, David Ruffin, Sly and the Family Stone, The 5th Dimension, B.B. King, Nuyorican bandleader Ray Barretto, the Staples Singers, and Mahalia Jackson.
A self-determined experience in unapologetic blackness, “Summer of Soul” is a must-watch, potentially exposing a new generation to forgotten hits of the 60s. In one scene, Nina Simone sings “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” At the same time, journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault speaks about being one of the first students to integrate the University of Georgia is a stunning exposition of Black resilience.
Hunter-Gault also shared her experience as a Black journalist at a legacy media outlet during a great culture shift. She highlighted her attempt to use Black, instead of “negro,” in the headline for a story that a white editor later changed without a conversation.
Hunter-Gault wrote for the New York Times, refused to drop the matter, and reportedly wrote an 11-page memo demanding the outlet respect the change and use Black.
Questlove previously shared that doing this documentary was a part of his commitment to undoing the harm of Black erasure in culture and history.
“The fact that 40 hours of this footage was kept from the public is living proof that revisionist history exists,” Questlove said in press materials for the documentary.