Amidst the ravages of a pandemic, fear of new COVID variants that are resistant to the vaccines just now slowly trickling out, and fast approaching a year of being confined indoors, this premiere at Sundance Film Festival should be essential viewing for its uplifting spirit. Summer of Soul is Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s (member of The Roots, filmmaker, producer, DJ) directorial debut and it is brilliant. Even during the pandemic, we had no reprieve from being targeted by police for violence and politicians and a healthcare system that largely ignores us and this documentary gives us a glimpse of where we are by looking back at where we were. We are tired; tired of the violence, the erasure of our achievements, our voices, and our worth.
A Moment Few Knew About
The Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 came before Woodstock and had some of the biggest names in entertainment—B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & The Pips to name a few. It was filmed and then just sat squirreled away for decades. Questlove brought this film to light at a time when we are shouting enough is enough; we will not be erased, silenced, and ignored. I love that this is premiered as we are about to enter Black History Month. This doesn’t only cover the festival, but interview people who attended—as an audience member or performer—to discuss the catharsis that was experienced by hundreds of thousands in Harlem.
1969 was also a time of anger as John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and Malcolm X were all assassinated within about a 5-year span prior to this festival. Combining that with police violence and a war that disproportionately sent Black men to the frontlines only to return in body bags or considerable trauma and the nation was a powder keg, waiting to explode. Eruptions of violence were breaking out nationwide, but as Martin Luther King stated prior to his death “a riot is the language of the unheard”. When every avenue to be heard is ignored or the goalpost for listening is moved, what can be expected?
Because of all that had occurred there were two opposing sentiments regarding how to bring change. Some believed in Martin Luther King’s peaceful protest while others felt the only way to create change would be through violence and bloodshed. The festival was made to calm that anger and pain before violence could sweep through Harlem.
Seeing so many amazing Black faces onscreen will fill you with joy. Not only the performers but seeing the happiness and excitement from the crowd—both old and young; witnessing the styles and dancing, uplifts you. Hearing accounts of how it felt to be physically present lightens us and brings us to hope that maybe one day we will again be able to go outside and attend a music festival with our friends and not escape our pain so much as find an outlet for it that doesn’t destroy.
Timely Because The Same Battle Continues
The film also shows the difference in priorities that still exists today, largely across racial lines. Technological and scientific achievements are lauded as magnificent among white people in the television interviews regarding the first moon trip, but when Black people were interviewed their responses were largely that money should be used to help the poor, struggling communities like Harlem. Today, we have that same argument, where funding is given to bail out Wall Street, wars and an obscene amount is given to police departments to harm us, and yet when it comes to funding for anything else that benefits those outside of the white elite, suddenly there’s no money and the term “bailout” becomes “handout”.
Summer of Soul also reminds us that not all our legends are gone. Some are here and all have inspired generations of creative art through various mediums. The nostalgia is there for something we never experienced firsthand; however, we are comforted that this not only exists but came out now. It’s a reminder that we are here and we are beautiful. Sometimes the world makes us forget, and that’s why documentaries like these are so important—to witness legends celebrating legends. To know with certainty there is a history here, albeit largely hidden. But it’s just waiting for us to excavate it and then it becomes a reminder of who we are and the beauty, skill, and greatness we all possess.
Feature photo credit: Mass Distraction Media/Courtesy of Sundance Institute