By Andrea Thompson
Critically and commercially successful artist Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson didn’t just make a remarkable directorial debut with the documentary “Summer of Soul (Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” he put the effort in when it would’ve been easy to rest on his laurels.
In the summer of 1969, the same season Woodstock occurred and was destined to be referenced and depicted repeatedly throughout the entirety of pop culture, another music festival also took place. Despite reaching more than 300,000 attendees and featuring some of the biggest performers not just of the time, but in music history, the Harlem Cultural Festival was quickly forgotten and discarded, with the very extensive footage remaining unseen for nearly 50 years. Until now of course. In telling this remarkable story, Questlove could’ve easily just selected some footage and let it roll, and audiences would’ve still been awestruck by the very palpable energy of Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, B.B. King, David Ruffin, Nina Simone, and many others performing their hearts out.
Thankfully, Questlove widens our gaze to a period of seismic changes, when America was in turbulence and many leaders advocating for progress had been assassinated, from Malcolm X to the Kennedy brothers, with the rage over Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder the year before still especially potent. As Questlove tells it, the Harlem Cultural Festival might’ve come into being partly to keep Black people from burning up the city. In terms of preventative measures, it was a good one, with attendees to activists to performers relating just how and why the music was both a soothing balm and a call to action, while also putting the politics and fashions of the time into context. Such is the breadth and range of the discussion that it sometimes feels a bit too wide, with some aspects, such as the Black Panthers providing security for the event, remaining tantalizing unexplored.
Woodstock will probably always loom large over the Harlem Cultural Festival, which is sometimes dubbed the Black Woodstock, partly out of necessity as part of a series of pitches to several buyers who remained uninterested in telling this story, but this fest was not a knock off of anything, as even a brief glimpse of the footage will confirm. That it took 50 years for this history to be acknowledged is a crime, but at last even casual music fans will salivate over a precious piece of history being unearthed. Stay tuned to the end for a final bit of humor.