On March 16, UMOJA (Concord Academy’s Black Student Affinity Group) launched a two-part screening of Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), a 2021 documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Students were ushered into the PAC during what would have normally been Wednesday Club Block. There, the UMOJA co-heads, Ravyn Hamer ’22 and Casey Bakarani ’22, gave a brief introduction to the film. They championed Summer of Soul as an artistic and historic representation of Black love, and it did not disappoint.
Summer of Soul was not constructed like a normal documentary. Directed by Questlove, the legendary drummer of The Roots, the movie is composed primarily of archival footage that had been lost for 50 years. It is intercut with interview footage from performers and audience members who were in attendance. The archival footage is gorgeous, electric footage that documents the festival from multiple different perspectives. The camera dips and dives into the audience before soaring over the stage. It’s a miracle that this footage was uncovered after so many decades. It only makes you wonder how much history has been lost because nobody was there to document it.
The Harlem Cultural Festival ran from 1967 to 1974 in the historically-Black upper Manhattan neighborhood. The 1969 festival featured performances from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, The 5th Dimension, and many other musical pioneers. Financed by Republican mayor John Lindsay and guarded by the Harlem Branch of the Black Panthers, the festival signified a breath of fresh air, a temporary halt so that Black residents of Harlem and New York City could celebrate, party, and have fun. Journalists, preachers, and audience members recounted the “unapologetic Black joy,” they felt at the festival. It also marked a moment in history where Black people were reclaiming the word “Black.” Chants of “Black is beautiful” echoed through Morris Mount Park, a powerful message during a time of escalating white supremacy, cyclical poverty, and institutional violence.
The final few minutes of Summer of Soul is some of the best cinema of the past year. Sly and the Family Stone finish a magnetic performance of “Higher” which ends in the whole crowd chanting harmoniously. It then cuts to a middle-aged man who was a young boy in 1969 as he watches back footage from the festival. Teary-eyed, he says, “You know, it’s funny. You put memories away, and you don’t realize, sometimes you don’t even know if they’re real. So, it’s almost confirmation that what I knew was real. I’m not crazy! Thank you! I knew I wasn’t crazy, brother. I knew I was not crazy. But now I know I’m not. And this is just confirmation and not only that, how beautiful it was.”