What’s most fascinating about the Summer of Soul, is that it’s a documentary that’s allowed to express itself on its own. Often times, documentaries are overrun with commentary, narration, interviews, etc. (“Noise” if you will). Summer of Soul let’s the film do the brunt of the talking which makes for a throughly enjoyable experience.
This could easily be the best doc of the year and it’s only Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s directorial debut. His premier project unearthed a precious time capsule containing never-before-seen footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a festival that took place over six summer Sundays from June 29th to August 24th, 1969. In that time, Harlem’s Mount Morris Park played host to over 300,000 people.
This documentary is everything. It’s love, it’s pain, and most importantly, it’s black. Unapologetically, black. And in the spirit of black authenticity, one has to ask; if this historical footage sat in a basement for 50 years, what other bits of black history are being kept from us?
The film’s discovery almost half a century later is a modern day reflection of the same level of madness black people had to endure in 1969. This peaceful gathering was thought to pacify the masses as they acknowledged the one-year anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. On one occasion, a truly audacious reporter went around asking attendees their thoughts about finally landing a man on the moon. He soon discovered that the vast majority of people saw space travel as unnecessary and extracurricular. They were unimpressed and uninterested for the most part. Besides, no level of defunct questioning had a chance at disrupting the vibe at Mount Morris Park.
The Harlem Cultural Festival was a multi-faceted experience that everyone needs to feel. It was more than just music, it was a rally cry, a history lesson, and a holy ghost assembly. Artists ranged from BB King and David Ruffin to 5th Dimension, Sly and the Family Stone, and Mahalia Jackson. A prime Jesse Jackson led the park in prayer multiple times. The Edwin Hawkins Singers took the masses to church on one hot summers day. And Nina Simone soothed the soul through her piano just before reciting “Young, Gifted, and Black”. If that title rings a bell, you may remember it from a speech by the late Chadwick Boseman.
The responsibility of this beautifully cultivated event belongs to Tony Lawrence. It was he who landed sponsorship via Maxwell House, approval from the city, and even a thumbs-up from the mayor. The host and emcee never saw a loud outfit he didn’t like as he changed, what seemed like, every third act.
Summer of Soul gets a 10 out of 10. The people in the film tell the story, the people in the studio simply supplement when needed. It’s a work of art in its storytelling and execution. Also, if you have the sudden urge to listen to Stevie Wonder or 5th Dimension after watching, you’re not alone.
Summer of Soul is available now on Hulu.