There are concert films, and then there is Summer of Soul (…or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), a knockout of a movie featuring precious performance footage that hasn’t been seen since it was shot in 1969. Ahmir Thompson, better known as Questlove, has taken great raw material and shaped it into a memorable documentary that offers entertainment and food for thought at the same time.
We see Stevie Wonder at his best on stage, but we also hear him look back at this time as a crossroads in his career. His record label didn’t want him to tackle controversial subject matter, but current events weighed heavily on his mind. Ultimately he chose not to play it safe.
Reporter Charlayne Hunter Gault recalls that 1969 marked the death of the word “Negro,” at least in The New York Times, where she wrote an angry memo to her boss about adopting the word “black.” Editor Abe Rosenthal agreed with her and it marked a transition: people adopted the phrase “Black pride,” let their hair go natural and wore dashikis.
Seen from this vantage point, when the air is filled with talk of inclusion and representation, Summer of Soul captures a moment in time when a Harlem concert series welcomed the white, liberal mayor of New York City, John V. Lindsay and programmed a wide variety of performers like Mongo Santamaria, Ray Baretto, Sly and the Family Stone, B.B. King, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone—even Moms Mabley and ventriloquist Willie Tyler and Lester. It’s equally valuable to hear from folks who attended this outdoor concert series, and others who have their own perspective on what it signified, like Lin-Manuel Miranda and his father Luis.
The summer of 1969 represented different things to different folks, as this film reminds us. Black people had no emotional stake in the moon landing; they were more concerned about issues they faced every day, including drugs, crime, and the abandonment of once-thriving neighborhoods like Harlem.
It’s touching to watch Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. watch footage of themselves as part of The 5th Dimension, more than fifty years ago, and explain what it meant for them to be cheered by a crowd in Harlem, because they were often criticized for not being “black enough.”
First-time filmmaker Thompson has a refreshingly light touch; he never uses a sledgehammer to get his points across. As someone who lived through that summer I found Summer of Soul both nostalgic and relevant…certainly one of the best films to be released this summer.
Summer of Soul is now playing in theaters and on Hulu.