For most people, the musical zeitgeist of the late ‘60s begins and ends with three festivals. Monterey Pop, the 1967 wunderkind set squarely during the Summer of Love, featured a diverse lineup from Otis Redding to Ravi Shankar. The hippie dream would reach its zenith on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in 1969 in Woodstock, a cultural hallmark and clarion call for Boomers who endured the mud and the rain for three days of peace and music. Meanwhile the Hells Angels and bad drugs would rip it all apart just a few months later at Altamont. Each festival has its attendant documentary, films that have taken their place as important rock ‘n’ roll documents.

If you scrutinize these films closely, you will find the majority of people of color are only visible on stage. Redding gives an impassioned performance, one assigned extreme gravitas now that we know his untimely death is right around the corner. Jimi Hendrix fucks his amplifier at Monterey Pop and sets his guitar on fire, returning for Woodstock to set the National Anthem aflame. One of the few Black men we see at Altamont is knifed to death by a biker. But the audience? It’s mainly starry-eyed, middle/upper-class white kids who are hopped up on drugs, fed up with Vietnam and sick of the system that is trying to suppress self-expression.

In the summer of 1969, just a hundred miles south of Woodstock, the Harlem Cultural Festival took place over a series of weekends in Mount Morris Park. Black artists from Nina Simone to Stevie Wonder played to large crowds of mainly Black New Yorkers, yet the festival has gone largely unremembered. Filmmaker Hal Tuchin, on-hand to capture the series on two-inch videotape, even called the festival “the Black Woodstock,” hoping he could capitalize on the other’s festival success and sell his movie. But it wasn’t meant to be and the footage sat unseen in Tuchin’s house until director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson recently crafted it into the new documentary, Summer of Soul.

Unlike Woodstock, which exists in the moment, Summer of Soul serves a double purpose. Questlove, drummer for seminal rap act The Roots, not only restores the Harlem Cultural Festival to historical significance by allowing us to witness some amazing performances, he also gives us a crash course on what it meant to be Black in the ‘60s. As the Vietnam War raged on and Black Americans disproportionately died there, Questlove presents a three-dimensional portrait of the vibrant Harlem neighborhood, Manhattan’s Black neighborhood. A cultural hub besieged by drug addiction, the residents of Harlem slouch to the end of a decade that saw its champions from the Kennedys to Martin Luther King Jr. to Malcolm X silenced by assassins. Still, some Black Americans wanted to remain non-violent while others pushed to meet white violence with violence of their own.

But in the middle of all this strife floated this “Black Woodstock” and oh, what amazing performances we get to witness. Stevie Wonder, just 19-years-old and on the threshold of creating his ‘70s masterpieces, totally commanding the stage while ripping it up behind a drum set. The mixed race and gender funk of Sly and the Family Stage sending the crowd into hysterics. Nina Simone wrangling “Blacklash Blues” into a clarion call for equal rights. And the spine-tingling moment when Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples raise their voices together. Questlove also digs deep and allows lesser-known acts to shine from David Ruffin to Mongo Santamaria to the 5th Dimension. The performances are no less indelible than what we see in Woodstock or Monterey Pop.

If anything diminishes Summer of Soul, it’s Questlove’s decision to include voiceovers from interviews over performances. We don’t need to cut away from a Nina Simone song to hear someone wax about its perfection. Very few songs are presented here uninterrupted. But that is a minor quibble. Questlove performs magic by not only letting us witness this footage for the first time, but also allowing the people who were there in the flesh to relive those beautiful summer weekend days. The ‘60s didn’t begin and end with Woodstock. There are many other stories to tell.

The ‘60s didn’t begin and end with Woodstock. There are many other stories to tell.
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Black Joy
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