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Gladys Knight & the Pips perform at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969.20th Century Studios / Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

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Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Directed by Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson

Featuring Stevie Wonder, Mavis Staples and Gladys Knight

Classification PG; 117 minutes

The summer of 1969 included the staging of the Harlem Cultural Festival, held at the then-Mount Morris Park. The historic festival welcomed more than 300,000 attendees for its month-long celebration, with New York entertainer Tony Lawrence playing host to the concert series every Sunday afternoon from late June to the last week of August. Featuring Maxwell House as a sponsor, as well as security enforced by none other than the Black Panther Party, the Harlem Cultural Festival was unique in its showcasing of Black artists to such a sizable (and largely Black) audience.

For those in attendance, the festival was transformative. Featuring a bounty of performances from Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Sly & The Family Stone, Moms Mabley, Mahalia Jackson and more, the festival was filmed in its entirety by producer Hal Tulchin and subsequently broadcast in hour-long programs aired every weekend on cable television.

Despite the draw and cultural importance of the festival, the majority of Tulchin’s film remained unreleased. The demeriting of Black history to the back burner of the cultural mainstream is nothing new, but the Harlem Cultural Festival also occurred the same summer as the similarly historic Woodstock festival, which had only about 100,000 more attendees in a much more expansive space 160 kilometres away from inner-city Harlem. Despite an attempt to sell the film and event as a “Black Woodstock,” the film remained unseen in a basement for more than 50 years.

Enter The Roots drummer and late-night TV mainstay, Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson. In his directorial debut, titled Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), the musician guides us through not only footage of the festival, but also the social and historical context of the time. With an ease that is perhaps too quick to check its own boxes, we’re given over to the parallel histories of music and culture, from the roots of gospel music and the upright palatability of the Motown roster to the late 1960s heroin epidemic in Harlem and the quick succession of high-profile assassinations that had Black America on edge.

While this is all standard fare that one could find in almost any documentary focusing on this specific time in Black America, what gives Summer of Soul its edge is undoubtedly its footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival and the way it has been shaped here without diluting its vibrancy. The performances feel urgent, owing largely to Tulchin’s style, but also because of the relations that the film is able to establish between its two audiences.

As we are captivated, so too do we see Black folks in Harlem, enchanted by these performers and by the beauty of the space that the festival had been able to foster. They often look to Tulchin’s camera, either visibly excited to be filmed or trying hard to play it cool. In many ways, this shared gaze has the effect of collapsing the annexations of past and present, allowing us to be seen in this moment just as we see them.

There is a lived importance to this event that is clearly felt by the musicians, vocalists and entertainers documented here, many of whom are performing for a majority-Black audience of this size for the first time. A performance by Nina Simone, the High Priestess of Soul herself, wherein she performs a poem written by Langston Hughes, feels completely uncontainable by both screen and camera, living instead on the plane of freedom and feeling. Likewise, a shared onstage moment between Mahalia Jackson and a young Mavis Staples feels so poignant as to encapsulate a multitude of relations in its single gesture.

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Nina Simone performs at the Harlem Cultural Festival, which is featured in the documentary Summer of Soul.20th Century Studios / Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

That Summer of Soul should juxtapose such rallying and emotive scenes like this with a star-studded cast who are invited to speak to the present realities of Black and brown life is unfortunately what too often breaks the spell of this magic. From Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to Chris Rock and Lin-Manuel Miranda – who famously made millions profiting off a Black art form only to fail to consider including us in his most recent flick – the talking heads here are largely from within the celebrity orbit that Questlove circulates.

I think of a documentary akin to Twenty Feet From Stardom, where part of the appeal of such an untold history is the ability to witness those who took part in it respond and react to it in the present. That present is here, with lovely present-day appearances from such figures as Gladys Knight and Staples, but it is unclear why folks such as Rock and Miranda are given almost equitable screen time. The revolutionaries name-dropped in Summer of Soul’s quick cultural primer (like Huey P. Newton) are largely gone, their lives envisaged only in archival footage.

As a filmmaker, Questlove utilizes his celebrity connections more than he does original directorial vision, trading instead in long-established, standard documentary structure and form. Summer of Soul is polished, but it pales in stark comparison to the raw footage and energy of the Harlem Cultural Festival. Questlove seems to be aware of this, cultivating instead the ability to give over space to the original performers. We witness them laugh, cry and share anecdotes about their time in Harlem, and it is these moments that are the most affecting and well-crafted in terms of the intimacies he is able to establish.

For those of us who are keener to see archives transformed rather than reproduced, perhaps it is more fitting to consider Questlove as one of many caretakers of this history, rather than as a bold-minded auteur. In either case, as a disappeared archive now rightfully platformed, the historic moments that we are finally given access to are absolutely mesmerizing to watch.

Summer of Soul is available to stream on Disney+ featuring Star starting July 2, the same day it opens in select Canadian theatres

Special to The Globe and Mail

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.

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