"Summer of Soul" Review

Documentary film about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival 

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson synthesizes 40 hours of footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a string of concerts held in the middle of 1969, in his directorial debut, “Summer of Soul.” Dazzling crowds of hundreds of thousand Black people in Harlem–the Black oasis of New York–, the Festival took place at the Mount Morris Park, hosted by Tony Lawrence.  The film not only uncovers the beautiful and heartfelt performances of Black musicians but reveals the defining of Blackness as the community transitioned to a new mode of expression. 

A range of Black music was arranged in the film. Acts such as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, The 5th Dimension, The Staples Singers, Ray Barreto, and Sly an the Family Stone portrayed the differing genres that Black culture revered as much as developed. 

The Harlem Cultural Festival was truly a sign of the times. During the late 60s, the Civil Rights Movement was closing out, especially with the assassination of its leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and other Black luminaries of the time. Funny enough, city officials agreed to greenlight the stint of concerts in hopes to hose the hot summers fueled by racial inequality. New York City mayor and Harlem favorite, John Lindsay even made an appearance in front of the crowds. Advances in technology and motivation from Cold War antics, proved grand as the first man, Neil Armstrong, made it to the moon. In contrast with the white consensus in the film, Black people widely dismissed the moon landing, with those who needed the hundreds of millions that were spent in mind. This put into perspective how life as a Black American differed from the average white one. Black people were also forming their identity as a community and individuals with the death of ‘the Negro’. The film highlights the contrasts with images and videos of folks in different, vibrant prints and at hair salons perfecting their fros, and even in the styles of hair and dress of its performers. This redefining was helped by the power of music, the power that Black musicians harnessed as they dipped in and out of varying genres, revealing the hope and grief of the future of Black Americans. The film uses interviews of Black people of that time to verbally express the feelings of the Black masses over the musicians of the show, singing and performing with the same sentiments. The 5th Dimension’s performance especially showed that the times were changing as they performed musically and lyrically ‘like a white group’ contrary to who they are and who they were performing for. Marilyn McCoo, a vocalist in the group talked about how important the Festival being in Harlem, New York was for showing that a Black band can differently than what Black music and artists are not only stereotyped as, but most Black people believe, as well. Nina Simone’s performance is also worth mentioning. Her reading of David Nelson’s call-to-arms poem reminded the audience, a sea of Black people of different ages and backgrounds, that the struggle to freedom is still on way. The audience’s responses to questions such as ‘Are you ready to kill?’ and ‘Are you ready to build black things?’ showed, not only, that Nina Simone was a leader in the movement and that the injustices against Black people were soon to be combatted.  The expansion of Black expression was seen in the festival and became popular in the incoming 70s with the newfound Black consciousness and power movement. The inclusion of Black Panthers as security guards, rather than the audience putting their trust in the police showed the proactive efforts. Black women, men, children and all wearing their afros showed the new admiration for Black beauty. The film reveals how music can be used to celebrate, influence, and lament the status of its listeners; its powerful and specifically this Festival was a piece of history that shaped the new generation of Black people and their pride despite the hate and endless discrimination.