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Sundance Review: “Summer of Soul” Was More Than the Black Woodstock

Written by: Melanie Addington | February 2nd, 2021

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, director of SUMMER OF SOUL, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Michael Baca.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Questlove, 2021) 3½ out of 4 stars.

Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is a thing of beauty. The directorial debut of Ahmir-Khalib “Questlove” Thompson, it brings to light much joy and music history. The deeper layer of anger and sadness that this went ignored for 40 years, however, must be the bigger conversation.

A detailed exploration of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival that ranged from gospel music and well-known acts like Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson to rock ‘n’ roll like Stevie Wonder and blues like B.B. King. Nina Simone also makes an appearance. Of note is that when Sly and the Family Stone played, the Black Panthers had to act as security since the police were a no-show. While the amazing music tells the story, it also serves as the backdrop for the civil unrest of the times.

The concert series took place the same summer as Woodstock, which ran August 15-18 in Bethel, New York, happening over a series of weekends from June through August in Mount Morris Park in Harlem, instead. A combined 300,000 people attended the performances. While Woodstock footage has been released in a variety of documentaries, music documentaries, news programs and more, the Harlem Cultural Festival footage, filmed in full by producer Hal Tulchin, could not sell and did not get released other than by a local station. Not touched upon by the documentary was that in 1969, quite a few major concerts were held across the country to little acclaim.

A still from SUMMER OF SOUL, 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.

Despite this being the musician’s first feature, it has a deftness of editing, a clear narrative and a view that really only he could tell. It has surprising touches like the Fifth Dimension trying to fit in with the Black community, the rise of Black Pride, the soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement, and something as simple as how politics come into play even in a music series. Mixing the archival footage with the perspective of present-day talking heads, the film rolls along nicely with a soundtrack that can’t be beat.

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Melanie Addington has worked with the Oxford Film Festival since 2006 in various capacities and became Executive Director in August 2015. She also directs, writes, and produces films and serves on the Mississippi Film Alliance as President. She co-founded OxFilm, the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council's program to lend equipment to Oxford filmmakers.

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