Sundance 2021: Summer of Soul

A still from Summer Of Soul (Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Mass Distraction Media.

Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) makes for a rocking good time while revisiting the late 1960s.

Please stay through the credits for a clip at the end of the film.

A lot was taking place in the summer of 1969.  Man went to the moon when the Apollo 11 mission made history.  A happening took place at Woodstock.  But at Mount Morris Park, the Harlem Cultural Festival was taking place and attendees were having a good time.  You wouldn’t know about these other events if you happened to travel back in time.  This is how important the music was.  Though to be fair, this was a series of six weekend concerts–not a one-off event.

The lineup reads like a Who’s Who of the music scene: Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, B.B. King, The Staple Singers, the 5th Dimension, David Ruffin, Mahalia Jackson, and Gladys Knight and the Pips.  Mind you, this is just part of the overall lineup.  The film, running two close to two hours, features so much amazing music.  Believe me, I was up and dancing when David Ruffin came out to sing “My Girl.”  If you need to know, this performance came after Rufflin left The Temptations.

What Hal Tulchin’s cameras were able to accomplish is capture a culture in transition.  Much like Woodstock sparked a change, “Black Woodstock” did so as well.  Again, you can see this through who shared the stage.  The footage itself mostly takes over the screen but Questlove weaves in recent interviews with attendees and performers.  Mavis Staples appears by audio interview only because of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Luis A. Miranda Jr., Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Chris Rock  also make appearances.  It isn’t so much a talking head film where we see everyone sitting down on camera.  I mean, sometimes we see them but the archival footage takes up the large majority of run time.

I can certainly understand the views made while discussing Apollo 11.  It was an expensive mission and while still historic, the U.S. government was turning its back on minority communities.  It’s why we’re still having the same conversations today about racial inequality.  The systemic racism is real and we cannot ignore it.

Back to the concert, the archives went undiscovered until now.  For over 50 years, Hal Tulchin’s 40 hours of footage just sat in a basement.  Nobody was interested in buying the footage.  A shame, really.  There was a reckoning over the last year when it comes to learning about Black history that had long since been forgotten.  Tulsa, Juneteenth, The 24th, Shields Green–these are all people or events that happened but are not really taught in schools.  The Harlem Cultural Festival, unfortunately, is no exception.  And now, it’s getting its due at Sundance.  Factor in the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and the film is all the more important.

Tony Lawrence organized the event and even though some 300,000 attended over the summer, Woodstock gets all the attention.  Maybe the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival will start getting its anniversary widely recognized?  Time shall certainly tell but fifty-one plus years is already long overdue.  This film helps to provide justice for an injustice.

Questlove knocks it out of the park with Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised).

DIRECTOR:  Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

Summer of Soul holds its world premiere during the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Documentary Competition.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.