Summer of Soul is one powerful film. The Harlem Cultural Festival, the film’s subject, is unfairly tagged by some as the “Black Woodstock” – this event was so much more than another large music festival held in the summer of 1969. If the primary protest at Woodstock centered on not being treated as cannon fodder for Vietnam, the primary protest at the Harlem Cultural Festival centered on being treated as an equal US citizen – a far more fundamental desire and one which had supposedly been guaranteed with landmark legislation just a few years prior.
Summer of Soul chronicles how the size-equivalent of 6 sold out Dodger Stadium events occurred over 6 weekends in Harlem. The acts are classic, of course, but the camera turns to the audience more than one would think in such a film. Appropriately so. Those audience faces tell much about the Black experience in 1969 and the resiliency of the Black community is something to behold. Like Native America, Black America had been subjected to broken promise after broken promise. And then, a year previously, it had lost its most eloquent voice to assassination. What, now, was the way forward?
There is healing and fire and inspiration in the music. Little wonder – the sound from within Black churches provides an aural authenticity that grounds all. The Festival audience was not on a casual musical outing. They were congregating and providing witness. They were renewing themselves for battles they knew they shouldn’t have to fight in the first place. So much is in evidence on that stage in Harlem, including a deeply personal piece by Nina Simone that simultaneously introspects and calls for group action. By the time we get to people being interviewed about the first Moon landing (which happened during the Festival), we are not surprised to find that dessert is not a priority for people who haven’t yet eaten.
Woodstock represents a time capsule of days gone by. The Harlem Cultural Festival represents a moment that is, unfortunately, far too relevant today. Yes, the resiliency of the Black community is something to behold. It’s long past time, however, to be relying on it.