Summer of Soul

Review by Willard Manus

1969 was a tumultuous year in American history. It was a year of war (Viet Nam), space exploration (Apollo 11), assassination (RFK, MLK, Malcolm X), rising black militancy (the Panthers), and the beginning of the heroin epidemic. In July of that year Harlem also mounted its own version of Woodstock, a major cultural festival that celebrated black music and song. Spread out over six weekends, the free concerts in Mt. Morris Park attracted an ocean of people, thrilling to the artistry of such stars as BB King, Mahalia Jackson, the Staples Singers, Stevie Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone, Herbie Mann and The Chambers Brothers (to name but a few).

Backed by New York City’s Mayor Lindsay and several corporate entities, the Harlem Culture Festival was, as one critic said, “an extraordinary event. Not just of musical history. It’s a mind-blowing moment of American history.” The TV producer Hal Tulchin shot the concerts on spec but couldn’t attract financing to complete the film, so his work languished in his basement for nearly fifty years until Searchlight Pictures realized its value and hired director Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson and editor Joshua L. Pearson to assemble a workable version.

As a result, the public can now see SUMMER OF SOUL, both in theatres and on Hulu. The freshly restored original footage has been given a new dimension. Some of the artists who took part in the ‘69 festival were invited to look back on their own performances–-and comment on the significance of the event. As drummer Max Roach said, “The festival marked the year the Negro died and the Black was born. Black liberation was propelled on a wave of music.”

Leading that wave was Nina Simone, whose fiery songs, “Mister Backlash” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” inspired the 300,000-strong crowd to sing along with her–-and shout their approval when she recited a militant poem by David Nelson, “Are You Ready?”

The plea for change and civil rights was echoed by many of the other festival head-liners, notably Tony Lawrence and Ray Barretto, whose Afro-Puerto Rican band had onlookers dancing to a Latin beat while he belted out its defiant lyrics. Pundits like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton added their comments, helping to make SUMMER OF SOUL a lot more meaningful than just another filmed rock concert. As the New Yorker Magazine said, “SUMMER OF SOUL is like a major archaeological find–-King Tut’s tomb of 20th-century Black performance.”

SUMMER OF SOUL won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance 2021. It has gone on to enchant audiences around the world.