Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised.)

New York, the hot and humid summer of 1969. Up in Woodstock, was the Summer of Love. Down in Harlem, it was the Harlem Cultural Festival, the Summer of Soul. For six consecutive Sundays at Mount Morris Park in Harlem, Manhattan, the City of New York hosted a concert series, dreamed up and emceed by Tony Lawrence, the Director of the festival. The line-up had an eclectic mix of the best of all music genres of the time. The Fifth Dimension, The Edwin Hawkin Singers, Max Roach, Mahalia Jackson, The Staple Singers, Stevie Wonder, David Ruffin (of the Temptations), Gladys Knight & the Pips, Nina Simone, and B.B. King were amongst the performers. Every Sunday, 40 to 50 thousand folks would flood the park to participate in the glorious noise.

Every performance was filmed by director and producer Hal Tulchin. The festival was touted as the “Black Woodstock” but did not garner any interest. In 2016, Amir “Questlove” Thompkins, was approached to put this documentary together. With initial reluctance to take on the project, Questlove, took it on once recognizing that as a musician, music history teacher and writer, making the documentary was very much “on brand”.

At first, the NYPD refused to provide security for the events. The Black Panthers stepped in to ensure safety. Eventually, there was a police presence.

The reverend Jessie Jackson was there with the Operation Breadbasket Band, where just more than a year prior, Reverend Jackson witnessed the assassination of Martin Luther King. The violent loss of leaders JFK, Malcom X, MLK and Robert Kennedy left a deep wound in this country and the depths were felt in the black neighborhoods.

The performances were well weaved through the movie, audience reactions to the performers captured the summer vibes of the crowd. People were eating, drinking, dancing and have a wonderful time. That was the primary reason that Tony Lawrence cited for having the festival.

The film was peppered with interviews of the performers who were there. Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. from the Fifth Dimension. The tell the story of how they came to perform one of their number one hits: ‘Aquarius/Let the Sunshine in’. Lin-Manuel Miranda and his father Luis A. Manuel Jr. talk about the neighborhood of East Harlem and the Latin influences of the time. Sheila E. (Escovedo) talks about the afro-cuban music being played by Mongo Santamaria, Ray Borretto. Selema Masekela talks about his father Hugh Masakela.

To say that Thompkins delivered a very good documentary would be understated. This film not only celebrates the music, but it also acknowledges the political happenings of that time. It is a brilliantly directed film that tells us of a moment in history that was celebrated, but then forgotten until someone learned of the treasure hidden down in Hal Tulchin’s basement.

I could not sit still through the screening, dancing in my seat throughout. Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staple’s performances had the hairs rising on my arms. Nina Simone’s performances were just extraordinary and to watch her performance entrance the audience, fantastic. FYI Spotify has the playlist. Questlove, you made a mighty fine film. Definitely a labor of love.

5 stars out of 5