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Harlem Cultural Festival Of 1969 Fuels ‘Summer Of Soul’

After 50 years in a basement footage of ‘Black Woodstock’ lights up the screen

Gladys Knight and the Pips was just one of the impressive musical guests that...

Credit: Searchlight Pictures

Above: Gladys Knight and the Pips was just one of the impressive musical guests that performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival in the summer of 1969. "Summer of Soul" uses never before seen footage of the festival to create a new documentary.

Most people have heard of Woodstock but most have never heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival that happened that same summer of 1969. The new film "Summer of Soul" accesses a treasure trove of never before seen footage and interviews people who were there to create a vivid documentary about the event.

Over the course of six weeks in 1969, veteran TV producer Hal Tulchin filmed the Harlem Cultural Festival. Then the footage sat in his basement for 50 years because he couldn’t get anyone interested in turning it into a documentary.

Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.

Now musician and first time director Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson has crafted a film that both celebrates the amazing event as well as placing it into a larger context. Thompson could have simply strung together the musical performances for a concert film that would have rescued the event from the obscurity it was languishing in. But he wanted to do more and the result is an exhilarating documentary that both captures a moment in time and assesses its value.

Thompson opens his film not with footage of the festival but rather with the shot of someone who was at the festival watching footage of the event that he had never seen before. The swell of emotion we see is simply beautiful and says more about the meaning and importance of the event than mere words could convey. Later in the film The Fifth Dimension's Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. also watch footage with a similar response and it is moving.

Musa Jackson attended the festival as a small child and recalled, "It was the ultimate Black BBQ and then there was the music that made you feel it was so much bigger."

Jackson also noted what an impact it was to see 50,000 Black people gathered in one place celebrating Black culture.

The film reminds us that the festival came after America had witnessed the murders of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, and Malcolm X. It was a time of social upheaval, Black power, African influenced fashion, and a younger generation hungry for change. The film captures both the hope and the rage that fueled the '60s.

One of the best sequences intercuts the musical performances with the moon landing, and then contrasts reactions from white Americans with those of Black people at the festival. The white interviewees all express pride and excitement but the Black interviewees point out how that money could have been better spent helping African American communities. That sentiment would be eloquently conveyed the followed year with Gil Scott-Heron's "Whitey on the Moon" (a song and sentiment that was put to good use in the HBO series "Lovecraft Country").

"Summer of Soul" is smartly and passionately crafted. It delivers a vibrant portrait of an event that showcased a broad spectrum of Black culture and then sets that celebration against the turbulent political backdrop of the 1960s. So take a trip back in time and immerse yourself in this glorious film.

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Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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