April 8, 2022 | LIFE | By Frances Thyer | Illustration by Patil Khakhamian

Looking back at the recent 2022 Academy Awards, we saw groundbreaking moments. This includes the first openly queer woman of color to be given an Oscar for her acting abilities in addition to an instance when audience members applauded in sign language for Academy Award winning Films.

In less visionary and more well-known news, a poorly-timed joke from Chris Rock led to a slap in the face by Will Smith. That seemed to provide never-ending pop culture commentary. We saw winners such as “CODA” for best picture, “Encanto” for best animated film, and “Drive My Car” for best international feature. One especially enlightening film, “Summer of Soul,” won the Academy Award for best documentary feature.

Opening with a spectacular performance by Stevie Wonder, “Summer of Soul” takes the audience into a joyous reunion of minority groups in Harlem, N.Y., congregating in a time of societal juncture and widespread oppression.

Photo by Patil Khakhamian

The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, just one hundred miles away from Woodstock that same summer, attracted over 300,000 people to its free-to-all six-week summer concert series. Though famous artists such as Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, and Nina Simone performed, footage of the event was barely sought after, gathering dust in a basement for over fifty years as news of Woodstock spread across the nation.

In “Summer of Soul,” the filmmakers bring this archival footage to life through interviews with performers at the festival, people in the crowd, and individuals behind the scenes – even some who were kids at the time. One of the especially moving aspects of this film is that many of the interviews are recorded as the person watches footage of the film. In these interviews, the power of this event is illustrated by the sounds of laughter, tears, and silent awe.

The magic of this documentary is in the way that the bright archival footage and interviews come together as one, as if the 1969 festival has managed to live on through its energy and beauty for more than fifty years.

In “Summer of Soul,” we see festivalgoers adorned with everything from dashikis to church hats, as clothing in itself was described in the film as a political statement by Black and Brown communities.

Director Ahmir Thompson, an American drummer, songwriter, and DJ, amongst other talents, dove into the cultural and political realm of 1969, taking the audience on a tour through what was described in the film as “Soulsville USA.”  Questlove, as he is known in the music community, describes the festival as something joyous and hopeful for people who were at the end of their rope. “For a Black America being ravaged by violence and oppression, the festival was a healing moment,” says Thompson.

Still, “Summer of Soul” is about so much more than just the Harlem Cultural Festival.

The recent deaths of Malcom X and Martin Luther King had caused rifts in communities on the use of violence to combat centuries of racism and brutality, yet the footage shows an overwhelming sense of unity and power.

Archival footage of the Black Panther Party working as security at the festival plays as we learn that the Panther 21 trial was occurring simultaneously.

We see footage of the moon landing and festivalgoers’ response to the event, where one man argues that the money should’ve gone to poverty in Harlem and another seems unfazed by the news, commenting that the Harlem Cultural Festival is far more valuable.

“What the moon shot proves again is that what America hasn’t got is soul,” says someone in the crowd.

Due to the thoughtful blend of archival footage and commentary, the audience is given the opportunity to connect an ensemble of political, cultural, and societal elements into a cohesive and personal understanding of what the Harlem Cultural Festival represented, and more importantly, how it felt. You forget that you are watching a documentary, feeling as though you are part of a spiritual and deeply personal dive into an unlocked moment in time.

While the film is about so much more than the festival alone, the music in “Summer of Soul” leaves you constantly anticipating which performance you will be transported to next.  

The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival included a wide range of music, from jazz to blues to gospel, a musical crossroad representative of the many societal turning points at the conclusion of the 1960s.

Speaking about the music at the Harlem Cultural Festival, one interviewee says, “all of it makes you feel good.” “Summer of Soul” will make you feel the same. 

“Summer of Soul” is available to watch with Disney+ and Hulu. It’s also available to rent through various other streaming services.

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