“My name is Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson. I’m a musician and a music lover, and we’re here to talk about my directorial debut.” Even after reaching the pinnacle of success and having his finger on the pulse of the culture for decades, Questlove lacks any signs of ego.
The co-founder of legendary collective The Roots, Questlove cemented a legacy long before the bestselling author and five time Grammy winner was a nightly fixture on the Tonight Show. And he’s forever solidified his presence in the music industry through his production for great artists, such as Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Common, D’Angelo, John Legend, Amy Winehouse and many more.
Digging even deeper into his seemingly bottomless bag, he’s emerged with another gem as he prepares to release his directorial debut: Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).
More than an ode to Black music lovers, Questlove documents the true essence of an event buried for 50 years: the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. He highlights this moment in time, which fused music and politics to spark an entire movement. Or, as the documentary notes, “It was the pivotal year where the negro died, and Black was born.”
The sixties were particularly volatile for Black America. While footage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech accompanies each January, few discuss how reviled he was by white America — largely because of his public criticism of the Vietnam War.
By the summer of 1969, the country saw the assassinations of Dr. King, President Kennedy, Attorney General Robert Kennedy and one of Harlem’s own, Malcolm X. In the destructive aftermath, the Harlem festival was an intended balm.
Instead, it became a spark. Held the same year as Woodstock — which is lauded for launching the careers of legends like Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin and more — the Harlem Cultural Festival was a monster of an event. It boasted crowds of over 300,000 with a series of concerts from June to August 1969. It’s ironic — and telling — that one of the largest cultural events is practically unknown.
Notoriously locked away in a basement for more than 50 years, Questlove transformed 47 reels of footage into an intimate look at a very important intersection of Black culture: when the calls for nonviolence were slowly replaced by the rage of those done asking nicely.
As Questlove explained to Rolling Stone, “The number one question I had was, ‘Who wouldn’t want to see this?’ Who would throw this away? This was supposed to come out 50 years ago, and I was supposed to see this movie as a four-year-old.”
Adding, “This could’ve been such an adrenaline boost to Black music culture, and it wasn’t allowed.” As such, the film is committed to documenting the “revolution that was not televised.”
A unique collaboration between singer Tony Lawrence and New York Mayor John P. Lindsey, for six weeks the city of Harlem’s Mount Morris Park became a mecca for Black community, culture and music. Boasting appearances and performances from Gladys Knight and the Pips, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension, David Ruffin, The Staples Sisters and more, the park became the epicenter of it all. It even took the attendees to church with an iconic rendition of “Oh Happy Day,” courtesy of the Edwin Hawkins Band, and a performance from the late Mahalia Jackson, who sang one of MLK’s favorite songs, “Take My Hand.”
A shift was in the air, as the carefully coordinated outfits of Motown artists began sharing the stage with less polished acts, including Sly and the Family Stone, whose “don’t give a damn” mentality would inspire a new generation.
“I knew something important was happening in Harlem that day. It wasn’t just about the music. We wanted progress,” legendary songstress Gladys Knight explains in the documentary.
For Questlove, pushing the culture forward through music is something he’s always done, and
Summer of Soul takes it even deeper, highlighting the divide between white and Black America’s priorities. While 1969 saw man first walk on the moon, Black Americans were simply trying to walk in peace within their own country.
Footage of CBS news correspondent Bill Plante covering the event reveals the extent of this divide, as he asks concert goers their thoughts on the moon mission. “It’s beautiful, but I couldn’t care less,” says one. “Cash they used getting to the moon could have been used to feed poor Black people in Harlem and all over this country.”
Leaving no stone unturned, Questlove highlights how the festival brought all elements of the diaspora together with performers from African American, African, Afro-Latino, Hispanic and other musical roots.
In spite of being (purposely) locked and hidden away, Questlove has shined a light on a magical moment in time that’s simply filled with Black joy. Or as attendee Musa Jackson describes: “It was like seeing royalty. Around the park, people were selling food, lemonade, kool-aid, and balloons. It was the ultimate Black BBQ.”
Questlove’s Summer of Soul is a fitting tribute and promise to keep Black stories from being hidden. “What’s happening now is we’re realizing, ‘Let’s please ourselves first.’” Summer of Soul in theaters and on Hulu TOMORROW.
This editorial is brought to you in partnership with Searchlight Pictures.