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Why It Took 50 Years for the Harlem Cultural Festival to Get Its Cinematic Due

Questlove's acclaimed documentary Summer of Soul will open the Oak Cliff Film Festival on Thursday at the Texas Theatre.
By Todd Jorgenson |
Searchlight Pictures

It was the summer of Woodstock, when a single weekend filled with musical legends and 400,000 counterculture revelers turned a New York dairy farm into a pop-culture nirvana.

A few weeks earlier in 1969, just 100 miles to the southeast, the Harlem Cultural Festival drew almost as many fans, plus genre-spanning performers ranging from Stevie Wonder to B.B. King to Nina Simone, yet it remained in relative obscurity for decades.

More than a half-century later, the festival finally receives the cinematic spotlight with Summer of Soul, which marks the documentary debut of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the Roots drummer and frontman who wasn’t born until two years afterward.

The cinematic tribute will screen on Thursday at the Texas Theatre, during the opening night of the Oak Cliff Film Festival. It will open in theaters and begin streaming online on July 2.

“This film has really brought out an awareness and confidence that I never knew I had. Everything that I do creatively is behind a shield — behind a drum set, behind my band, behind [Roots vocalist] Black Thought, behind Jimmy [Fallon], behind turntables,” Thompson said. “There’s always a barrier, and that’s how I thought I liked it. This was a game-changer for me.”

Thompson said his first exposure to the Harlem festival came in 1997, when the Roots were performing in Tokyo. A translator knew his affinity for soul music, and showed him two minutes of a performance by Sly and the Family Stone. He didn’t learn the specifics of the footage until 20 years later.

“I just assumed that all festivals during the 1960s were from Europe, because America really didn’t have that culture yet,” he said.

The festival, which took place over the course of several weekends in Manhattan’s Mount Morris Park, was filmed by producer Hal Tulchin, although that footage remained largely unseen until now.

Thompson’s task became editing more than 40 hours of archival video down to feature length. He admits his first rough cut ran more than 3.5 hours.

“For five months, I just kept it on a 24-hour loop, no matter where I was. If anything gave me goosebumps, then I took a note of it. And if there were 30 things that gave me goosebumps, then we had a foundation,” Thompson said. “We had to do maybe 2 percent adjustment on the audio. It sounded perfect.”

He wanted to maintain a balance between musical styles — soul, gospel, jazz, even salsa. Highlights include Wonder’s drum solo, a powerful duet featuring Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples, and electrifying sets from King, Simone, and the Fifth Dimension, among others.

It wasn’t until late in the process that Thompson decided to intersperse the concert snippets with present-day interviews with the artists and attendees. One of them is cultural entrepreneur Musa Jackson, who was 5 years old at the time yet retained vivid memories of the occasion.

“Once we showed him the footage, the tears started welling. He didn’t know if he remembered it or if anyone believed him,” Thompson said. “The emotional component of the film was something I wasn’t prepared for.”

Although it never got the notoriety it deserved for decades, the event became influential behind the scenes as a forerunner to other celebrations of Black music and culture, such as the Broccoli Festival, Rolling Loud, and others. That list includes the Roots Picnic each year in Thompson’s native Philadelphia.

Thompson said the experience making Summer of Soul galvanized him. He’s already working on another documentary about Sly Stone, with other artistic ventures to follow chronicling the vital legacy of Black creatives.

“This is a step forward. This isn’t the only story out there. This isn’t the only footage that’s laying around out there unscathed. Maybe this film can be a sea change for these stories to finally get out. It’s important to our history,” he said. “I didn’t come into this wanting to be a director. I believe that creativity is transferable. This is not my last rodeo with telling our stories. If anything, I’m more obsessed than ever to make sure that history is correct, so we don’t forget these artists.”

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