Originally published Friday, January 29 as a part of The Stranger's Sundance Film Festival Converage.
Some footage is found in a basement. This footage contains a long forgotten event: the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969. It featured a banging amount of black and brown talent. Nina Simone (the storm), Sly and the Family Stone (the radical racial and gender experiment), Stevie Wonder (the boy genius), B.B. King (the king), Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach (the black modernists), Gladys Knight and the Pips (the perfection of slick), the Staple Singers (the grund of soul), Mahalia Jackson (the queen of heaven), and Hugh Masekela (the shumba of black Africa). This is what black gold looks like. And a stunning 300,000 (mostly) black people attended the six-week concert. Yes, it ran for six weeks. And without a hitch.
The Harlem Cultural Festival was a great success. Even New York City's then-mayor, the Republican John Lindsay, showed up, gave a brief speech, and looked like he was really digging the scene. The documentary, Summer of Soul, informs us that the black voters of Harlem regarded Lindsay in a warm light. Republicans were a different breed back then.
Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, the drummer for the Roots, a band that got its start in Philly and, before becoming the house band for the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, contributed 5 (OK, maybe 6) tracks to the hiphop cannon (or, as the greatest ever rapper, Rakim, called it, the "eternal list"), directed Summer of Soul. And what does Thompson's eye want to tell us? Not only that the amazing event was retrieved from oblivion but also to make the viewer wonder why the record of such a culturally significant and beautifully filmed event, one that successfully organized and provided a public education of black music from the Deep South, from Chicago, from Detroit, from Jo-burg, from Puerto Rico, from Jazz modernism, was in oblivion (a basement) in the first place.
The answer? Stories of black success and initiative are of little interest to those who have it in them the one goal of reinforcing black failure, black violence, black incompetence. The key message of Questlove's documentary is that demonstrations of black organizational brilliance must be taken down to the basement and left there forever. Even calling the event "Black Woodstock" did not help the festival's cause one bit. The mainstream wanted none of it. If a black thing goes right, it can only be attributed to white know-how, to white greatness. If the universe does right by me, the future will call Woodstock the white Harlem Cultural Festival.
You can now watch Summer of Soul on Hulu.