While the original revolution may not have been televised, that’s all about to change thanks to Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, co-founder of the iconic group The Roots. The 5x Grammy winning musician and New York Times bestselling author is shining a light on a nearly-forgotten moment through his directorial debut: Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised.)
One part music film, one part historical event, Questlove’s documentary details how over 300,000 attendees flooded Mount Morris Park — now known as Marcus Garvey Park — for a celebration of Black history, culture and fashion in the summer of 1969.
That year should already ring a bell. Even if you weren’t there to witness the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Sly and the Family Stone grace the stage in Bethel, New York, chances are you’ve still heard of Woodstock — the legendary 1969 festival that spawned a concert documentary and launched many musicians into stardom. But while Woodstock introduced Sly’s band to a more mainstream audience, a lesser-known event that same summer would elevate him as an emerging Black icon.
For six weeks, music, culture and politics collided to become the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. This monumental event should have resonated throughout an entire generation. Instead, nearly 50 reels of festival footage sat in a basement for 50 years, essentially burying a candid look into a unique time in Black America.
In the summer of 1969, the assassinations of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were still resonating throughout the community, resulting in a wave of protests and riots across the nation. The festival was meant to ease rising tensions between a collective more concerned with landing a man on the moon than a community still fighting for equality in America.
Now, Questlove’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award winner is changing the narrative with never-before-seen footage that boasts everyone from B.B. King to The Staple Singers, Jesse Jackson, alongside a slew of other rising (and emerging) artists, activists, community leaders and more. One attendee describes it as similar to witnessing “Black royalty.”
The Revolution Was Documented, but Not Televised
Veteran television producer Hal Tulchin was the eye behind the camera that documented the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. But even after airing one-hour excerpts on late-night TV in New York, he couldn’t find a media buyer. After essentially being told there was no market for a “Black Woodstock,” Tulchin left the reels of over 40 hours of footage to collect dust in his basement for decades.
In 2016, after hearing about the footage from a friend, producer Robert Fyvolent developed a relationship with Tulchin. Together, following a restoration process that would take months to complete, the pair approached Questlove to direct what would eventually become Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised.)
Following the addition of award-winning editor Joshua L. Pearson and music supervisor Randall Poster, the documentary finally leapt into full gear in 2019. The team began assembling interviews with attendees, community leaders, experts, artists and more — a process that became delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which demanded stringent safety protocols.
For a moment in time, Harlem became a mecca for everything from soul to gospel music, including a special rendition of “Oh Happy Day” courtesy of the Bay Area’s own Edwin Hawkins Band. Now, the revolution is finally being televised, and it’s coming to an entirely brand new audience via a masterful mix of speeches and musical performances.
Same Sh*t, Different Generation
From Motown to militancy, music has served as the soundtrack for much of Black America’s history. The year 1969 was a pivotal junction in American history, the last year in a decade that included everything from the Civil Rights Movement to bitter protests over the Vietnam War.
Approximately 52 years later, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) speakers like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have created legacies on their own, while other icons have since crossed over. Yet the battles they initially fought continue to wage on. Through the tragic deaths of citizens like George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor and so many others, Black America has learned that while some may claim that “We are not our ancestors,” the trials and injustices we face today largely remain the same. This is pain that contemporary artists like Lil Baby and others have continued to verbalize in their own way.
While some may criticize their methods, when it comes to keeping the tradition going, many of today’s Black artists truly understand the assignment. This makes projects like Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) even more important for those who want to keep an accurate record of Black music history and its role as the voice of the people.
When it comes to history, Questlove is determined to get it right, a passion that sometimes results in him pouring over hours of footage to catch the perfect shots. Such dedication undoubtedly led to the film’s inclusion of iconic footage of Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples’ performance of “My Precious Lord,” a favorite of MLK’s.
Questlove dives even deeper into the brilliance of the event’s intersectionality, highlighting how the diaspora has influenced every aspect of Afro-Caribbean music and culture as well as the power of Black American gospel music.
With an interest in telling the authentic story of the evolving Civil Rights Movement and its direction in the summer of 1969, Questlove highlights the fact that Black people are not a monolith with a diversity of acts and performances that created a perfect melting pot of culture and soul.
Serving as a powerful and transformative look into Black America, Questlove’s documentary serves as a poignant reminder of the epicness that is Black culture and music. With never-before-seen footage, interviews and so much more, Questlove’s debut film offers a masterclass on the importance of Black history and music as a healing sound during times of political and societal unrest.
For a new generation, this film offers a candid look into a nearly forgotten time and delivers an invaluable lesson: Black is not only beautiful, it lives on forever.
Questlove’s Jawn Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is now playing in theaters and streaming on Hulu.
This editorial is brought to you in partnership with Searchlight Pictures.