Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson transported audiences back to the late 1960s with a special screening of his new documentary, “Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised),” at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on Friday night.
In its first two weeks in theaters, the musical movie about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival (billed as “a Questlove jawn,” paying homage to the director’s Philly roots) has gone on to make more than $1 million at the box office, plus it’s become a streaming sensation on Hulu.
“I’m really overwhelmed,” Thompson told Variety about all the buzz for the movie. “I’m used to doing really cool, underground, niche sort of things that you’ll discover like five years down the line — my fan base is world famous for being like, ‘I had no clue you did [that]’ and it’s something I did five years ago. This is the first time where I’ve done something where the instant reaction just absolutely exploded over the top. So, I’m overwhelmed and I’m humbled, and now I’m really anxious to make a Roots record to see if I can make lightning strike twice.”
The project marks Thompson’s first time in the director’s chair and was crafted out of 40 hours of performances from music legends including Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Sly and the Family Stone, and a dynamo duet between Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples. Thompson’s movie contextualizes why the Harlem Cultural Festival was a major cultural moment, taking place in the weeks before Woodstock, despite going unheralded for more than 50 years.
But “Summer of Soul’s” early success isn’t much of a surprise, given that the movie won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance earlier this year, before selling to Disney’s Searchlight and Hulu for a north of $12 million. Next up for the entertainer is a documentary about Sly and the Family Stone.
“I’m really just checking off my bucket list,” Thompson said. “I guess it’s my destiny to be a storyteller, and I like my new shoes I’m wearing.”
Thompson posed on the event’s beige carpet (which had a retro-inspired shag texture) with the movie’s producers Robert Fyolvent and David Dinerstein, before swapping his director’s cap for some headphones to DJ a live set. While the lucky audience at the Greek, including “Grown-ish” stars Yara Shahidi and Trevor Jackson, “Black-ish’s” Miles Brown, “Greenleaf” and “The Flight Attendant’s” Merle Dandridge , Netflix’s London Hughes and Kacey Musgraves, got to enjoy Questlove’s tunes and transitions in person, he simultaneously streamed the performance on Twitch’s Blackstream Live so fans at home could get their groove on too.
The “Summer of Soul” party also doubled as celebration for Hulu’s newly-created Onyx Collective, which is focused on creators of color. Spearheaded by Freeform president Tara Duncan, “Summer of Soul” is Onyx’s first project, representing a soft launch of sorts for the brand, albeit one with big impact.
“We had a choice of when and how we were going to launch this brand, but we wanted to do it when it was right,” Duncan explained. “We wanted to do it with material that we knew would reflect the diversity and the joy of the Black experience. But something that also didn’t shave off the edges and not reflect what’s really happening in the world.”
She continued: “For us to find a film that is so joyous and entertaining, and also a story that hasn’t really been told before, it just really embodies everything that we’re trying to encapsulate with the brand.”
Following “Summer of Soul,” the Onyx Collective will debut “The 1619 Project,” (based on materials from the New York Times Magazine and Nikole Hannah-Jones, produced by Oprah Winfrey and Lionsgate) and a new docuseries, “The Hair Tales,” from Tracee Ellis Ross and Michaela Angela Davis (produced by Oprah Winfrey’s OWN and Hulu). Onyx also inked an overall deal with “Insecure’s” Natasha Rothwell and will be the home to all non-Marvel projected produced by “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler’s Proximity.
“More than just a platform for artists of color, what Onyx collective is really going to embody is the idea of the future of storytelling. And that by giving creators an opportunity to tell the stories they want to tell, we’re actually going to move the medium forward. We’re about innovation,” Duncan said. “I think what creators of color are looking for is access, and the opportunity to produce at the level that their imaginations can take them, and that’s what this brand gives them an opportunity to do.”
The event was a bit of a Disney family affair, with a guest list made up of ABC, Freeform, FX and Hulu talent, including “Good Trouble” stars Sherry Cola and Zuri Adele, who shared their pride in watching the brand expand.
“I always consider myself a grio, a storyteller. And that’s exactly what Onyx is doing — telling the true stories of all of us, the stories that we don’t always learn in academia,” Adele said. “That’s why we get to be artists. We get to unearth the true history with our whole bodies, and that work lives forever. The most powerful social political tool on the planet is film, theater, television, digital media, and I’m so honored to be a part of it.”
The outdoor screening event was presented in partnership with Cinespia, with the park next to the Greek Theatre outfitted to match the 1960s festival-style vibes. Before the movie began, dancers dressed in era-appropriate costumes (and hairstyles) danced next to Questlove’s DJ booth, while guests either hula hooped or enjoyed the summer BBQ refreshments, including kettle corn, cotton candy and lemonade.
Thompson introduced the movie with a 15 minute conversation with KCRW’s Novena Carmel, who is also Sly Stone’s daughter, dishing about behind-the-scenes secrets of how he put the movie together and calling the project “Black joy at its finest.”
“Summer of Soul” is now in theaters and streaming on Hulu.