Summer of Soul review: rediscovering the Harlem Culture Festival

Continuing on with 2021’s impressive streak of music-based documentaries, The Roots frontman Questlove makes his directorial debut with Hulu’s Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). Making ample use of stunning archival footage in combination with interviews from key performers, attendees, and other significant figures, Summer of Soul is a vibrant celebratory chronicle of the 1969 Harlem Culture Festival.

During the Summer of 1969, while Woodstock was in full swing in Bethel, New York, there was another just as influential music festival going on across town in Harlem. The Harlem Culture Festival (sometimes colloquially referred to as the ‘Black Woodstock,’ was a summer-long series of free musical performances by and for the Black community, and the entire event was captured on film to be later released.

That ‘later’ never came, though, and the footage sat dormant for more than 50 years until Questlove rekindled interest in the Harlem Culture Festival and helped finally bring the long-awaited footage to the light of day.

It’s that footage, in combination with crucial interviews with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Chris Rock, that comprises Summer of Soul, which functions as both a concert film of the festival and a monument to the previously uncelebrated significance of the event itself. What sets Summer of Soul apart from most other concert films is, of course, the subjects’ sheer passion for the festival, and the importance of the event itself, which stood as a literal and figurative land-marker of (in the film’s words) “the year that ‘negro’ died and ‘Black’ was born”.

Summer of Soul is a stirring tribute to the beauty of Black culture.

The festival sat on the cusp of several significant turning points in American culture – smack in the middle of the Vietnam War, still feeling the ripples of desegregation across the nation, reeling from the assassination of key Civil Rights figures like Dr. King, Malcolm X, and both President John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby, and last but not least, coinciding nearly perfectly with the Apollo 11 moon landing. The film makes it abundantly clear from the opening moments that the Harlem Culture Festival wasn’t merely just a music festival – it was a marker of change, a celebration of Blackness in America, and  reminder of the communities’ past struggles and perseverance in the face of oppression.

Described as the “ultimate Black barbecue”, Summer of Soul effortlessly captures the electricity and vibrancy that must’ve been in the air during the original festival – maintained not only thanks to the beautiful, crystal-clear color recordings of the live performances but also thanks in significant part to the passion with which the interviewees reflect on the festival. Whether a featured performer or an everyday citizen who happened to attend the festival as a child, there’s a clear shining passion that every interviewee seems to share for the festival that shines through and brings the footage to life in a way that few other concert films can boast.

There’s a sense of unity about the festival that Questlove preserves in his depiction of the festival – acts ranging from Christian gospel groups to Afro Latino drumming ensembles to race and gender-mixed funk acts were in attendance, creating a richly diverse community that came together in celebration of Black music and culture in America. Questlove in turn creates this same feeling of togetherness in the viewing experience – that even though the festival took place over half a century ago, you can’t help but feel you experienced it firsthand thanks to the sheer passion with which the film and its interviewees discuss the festival.

Intercut with interviews and recorded festival footage are also newsreels and archival footage highlighting some of the smaller, more personal stories inspired and/or prompted by the power of the festival – grounding it not only as an escapist celebration, but also as a conduit for progress and change – Nina Simone’s magnetic performance at the festival is saved for the film’s final act, but delivers a potent reminder of her power as a performer and how the festival was unlike anything else before or since.

A visually stunning time capsule of the eclectic mix of changing fashion, hairstyles, and cultural attitudes at the time as well as a deeply personal tribute to one of the most influential but unacknowledged cultural events in American history, Questlove’s directorial debut Summer of Soul, through a mix of festival film reels, archival footage, and key interviews, crafts and infectiously joyous celebration of the Harlem Culture Festival.