John Clark shifting gears on the way to a blog. I had two other topics in mind for today until Beth and I went to the movies last Sunday night. I’m old school and prefer watching movies in a theater. After hearing about Summer of Soul, I knew I wanted to see it. I was at Woodstock the same summer that this six weekend festival happened in Harlem, but to my utter shame, never heard of it until I saw the promo for the movie a week ago. After watching it, my first thought was that viewing it was like getting handed a box of puzzle pieces, many familiar, that when assembled, created a completely new way of seeing something.
Most of the performers featured in the film are familiar. In fact The Fifth Dimension was the first musical group I ever saw live when they performed at Grady Gamage Auditorium during homecoming weekend at Arizona State University in the fall of 1966. Two of the members reminisce about how they came to record The Age of Aquarius. Add in Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, a quick appearance by Moms Mabley among others, and you’ve got almost two hours of great toe tapping, memory stimulating music, but that’s just a small part of the experience. Several of the performers, as well as many concert goers are featured, talking about how it felt then and how it feels looking back from today.
It’s saddening and thought provoking to realize that it this long and support from a charitable foundation for this film to be made. The footage sat, neglected for fifty years. It’s blended with interviews with performers as well as notables who grew up in that era like Charlaine Hunter-Gault. She shared her fight to start using Black instead of Negro while working for New York Times. When editor A.M. Rosenthal, changed it from Black back to Negro in a headline, she responded with an eleven page memo. It did the trick.
Also of note are the clips and reminiscences about losses felt by the Black community through assassinations, JFK, RFK, Malcolm-X and Martin Luther King. Jesse Jackson and a younger Al Sharpton weigh in on the effect. I also found the comments by Harlem residents regarding the impact of a man landing on the moon during the festival to be eye opening and thought provoking.
Don’t take my word for how great and impactful this film is. Make the effort to see it, then think about how those times were for the Black community and ask yourself if much has changed for them since this was filmed.
Here’s a description of the movie from the brochure at Railroad Square as well as a link to a NPR article and a trailer for the movie.
The United States in the summer of 1969 was at one of the most significant moments in national history. Culturally, scientifically, economically, the tenuous fibers of the great experiment were unraveling to reveal the tentacles of change engulfing the country. Most of us pinpoint at least one event―Woodstock, Apollo 11, the Manson murders, the Stonewall protests― but everywhere America looked there was disruption. Lost amongst the wondrous chaos of 1969 was The Harlem Cultural Festival (or “Black Woodstock”), a two-month celebration of Black pride and music attended by nearly 300,000 mostly Black Americans. The lineup speaks for itself: Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, B. B. King, Stevie Wonder, Hugh Masekela, The 5th Dimension, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, and The Staples. But for half a century this celebration of Black identity had been lost to the world. Miraculously, this incredible footage—looking and sounding up-to-date and spectacular in all ways by director Questlove—has been found and turned into the film event of 2021, winner of the Audience Award at Sundance.