By Ron Wynn
NASHVILLE, TN — Contrary to some accounts that have been written, there are many folks out here who’ve heard about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. It was covered extensively in the Black press at the time, even as mainstream outlets WERE ignoring it. It was held over six consecutive Sundays through the summer and it attracted some of the top stars in Black music across multiple idioms. But unfortunately, despite the fact that the entire series was filmed by a professional crew, that footage sat unreleased for five decades. Finally Ahmir Thompson, AKA Questlove, has put together a remarkable documentary on the event titled “Summer of Soul.”
It’s currently airing on Hulu and also being shown at the Belcourt, and it’s an artistic and cultural triumph. The Harlem Cultural Festival was held at what was then Mount Morris Park and has now been renamed Marcus Garvey Park. More than 300,000 people attended the various shows, and the lineup is a tribute to the diversity and flamboyance of Black culture across all its idioms.
B.B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, The Staple Singers, Mongo Santamaria, Stevie Wonder and the 5th Dimension are just a handful of the many stars featured in this film. The NYPD refused to provide security for Sly & The Family Stone, so the New York chapter of the Black Panthers did their job.
The sad footnote to this is original producer/director Al Tulchin tried to sell this footage for broadcast 50 years ago and could find no takers for what he called “The Black Woodstock.” It wasn’t until producer Robert Fyvolent found out about it and purchased the rights from Tulchin, then enlisted the services of Questlove that “Summer of Soul” resulted.
This is an exceptional work, one that’s too long in coming, but is no less welcome and necessary today. Anyone who misses it passes on a chance to view epic moments in cultural history.