With “Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson had a pretty monumental task to tackle. Not only was the first-time director telling the story of an all-but-forgotten festival that featured some of music’s biggest names, but he did so mid-pandemic — finding a way to streamline 45 hours of previously unseen footage into a cohesive and culturally relevant tale, celebrating Black music’s role in the cultural revolution of 1969.
Initially planned as a concert film, Thompson and his team quickly realized through the interview process — and the ongoing pandemic and calls for racial equality in present day — that the timing of the festival held its own significance and was a driving force of the film.
“One of the realizations, the eye-opening moments of this movie is the fact that we refer to ourselves as Black in 1969,” Thompson said at the Variety Studio, presented by AT&T TV, at the Sundance Film Festival.
Ahead of the film’s premiere, Thompson admitted that he dealt with some imposter syndrome when he was initially approached to direct the film.
“When it was presented to me, one, I didn’t believe it in the beginning. Because my ego wouldn’t even let me fathom that you know, the all-knowing music snob Questlove didn’t know about something as mammoth as this festival happening,” he laughed. “And then it went from that to, ‘Wait a minute, why am I chosen one to tell this story?’ This is more than just entertainment; this is history. Why are you trusting a first-time driver behind the wheel?”
Thompson’s film, which premiered in the U.S. Documentary Competition category at the virtual Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 28, centers on the Harlem Cultural Festival and features rare, unseen footage featuring Stevie Wonder [who performs an epic drum solo to kick off the film], Gladys Knight, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Mavis Staples, B.B. King and more from the six-week concert series at Harlem’s Mount Morris Park in 1969.
In the narrative, the concert and the acts who played it mirrored the cultural revolution that was taking place in the Black community after the devastating events of 1968, which included the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Plus, the festival happened weeks before Woodstock, which was known for launching the legends of music acts like Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell and Sly and the Family Stone. Sly and the Family Stone also performed at the Harlem Cultural Fest, using the first as a “dress rehearsal” performance of sorts.
“Woodstock happens in two weeks after this and it defines a lifestyle, it defines a generation. Woodstock, the city name alone, just defines a whole movement. And I kept wondering what would have went down if this were allowed to happen for [Black people],” Thompson explained. “If this were allowed to unfurl and and spread across the world as Woodstock did, how much of a difference could that have made in my life as a music lover and as a music collector? So, then I just felt this the sense of purpose that I have to tell the story.”
Festival producer and filmmaker Hal Tulchin, who documented the six-week festival in 1969, had called the project “Black Woodstock” in hopes of helping the film sell to studios. After everyone turned him down, the unseen footage sat in his basement for half a century. Tulchin died in 2017, but the film is dedicated to him. At one point, the new documentary was titled “Black Woodstock,” but over time, the team had a chance of heart.
“I was definitely in my feelings at the time when we settled on ‘Black Woodstock,'” Thompson said. “Because my thing was like, we as a people, we as creators have always had to deal with cultural appropriation, being swagger-jacked twenty-four seven. And, in my mind, I think this was like, ‘Now it’s our turn to do the same thing; let’s take your precious Woodstock and put a stain on it.’ But then I thought about that and I’m just like, we are not a stain.”
“We just felt like it would do a disservice like this [story], this isn’t an eye for eye, tooth for tooth moment, this is not about revenge,” he continued. “This is just about revealing the truth and what it was. And so, for me, it was ‘Summer of Soul.’ But I did get a wink in there with that the subtitle ‘Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised’ — that’s what I wanted to get out there, so I feel it’s more apropos.”
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