What if I told you that a “Black Woodstock” existed?
The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival was a mecca for music, art, politics and activism in New York City’s Mount Morris Park. It celebrated the vibrancy and diversity of the area with jazz, pop, blues, gospel and African acts—but it was lost in time. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson unearths the historic event through his Sundance-prized directorial debut, Summer of Soul. Filtering through piles of lost footage, the documentary details the iconic performances of Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, and the politics swirling around them.
“It is my chance to correct history,” Thompson told EBONY. It’s a story that, for so long, hasn’t been shared.
Back then, director and producer Hal Tulchin had cameras rolling for the entirety of the once-in-a-generation party in preparation for a concert film. But no studio green lit the project, so the colorful footage went unseen and was put in storage. Fifty years later, Thompson discovered it still existed and was in good condition. “It took about three months for me to say ‘let’s make a movie,”’ said Thompson. Summer of Soul became his passion project.
“I myself didn't even know the story,” Thompson admitted. “If I were a betting man, I would have bet all my publishing that this never happened.”
Thompson chalks that up to “Black erasure,” decades of African-American achievement and excellence in the arts ripped from public record. It’s a practice that not only held this film back, he says, but also continues to cripple Black creativity and opportunity on social media.
“I will no longer eye roll at Gen-Z content creators on Tik-Tok, talking about ‘that was my dance,’” said Thompson. “Before I was just the old grumpy guy who thought it was just a dance and it doesn’t matter. But I will no longer be dismissive of anyone’s creative claims of where the origin lies, because now I know it's real and revisionism is dangerous.”
Thompson jumped full speed into Summer Of Soul because of the impact he believes it could have on a new generation of artists, like what the footage of Woodstock did for musical genius Prince when he was 11-years-old.
“What's so weird is that when I'm doing this thing, I'm also reading Prince's autobiography,” said Thompson. “That was the moment that called Prince to be Prince. He said he knew instantly, ‘this is what I'm going do for a living.’ Somehow, I manifested a situation in which my parents are entertainers. And I got raised in music, and I still wound up here in this place I am now. But what about the other 6 billion potential musicians that could have had this film? And that, to me is just a sad state of affairs.”
To craft the music documentary, Thompson had to mine through 40 hours of footage. He did so by creating a 24 hour loop of it that played on his television non-stop for five months. “It’s a wonder the fuse didn’t blow out. I kept it rolling in the bedroom, in the kitchen. Anywhere I went, I would watch this footage.”
After three months, the self-described cinephile assembled a team to help him craft the narrative flow.
“I just told my production team to be really transparent. Do not let me walk out in the world with a wine stain on my suit without telling me.” said Thompson. “Credit to my producer, my editors and everyone involved in the process of helping me make it this because I wanted to make an effective educational piece.”
Upon the film’s release, Thompson is still wrestling with how working on this project has shaped him personally and as an artist.
“This could still change my life. And I'm a musician now, but this changed my life now 50 years after the fact. It's like the greatest thing that ever happened to me. So imagine what this could have done for mankind if it came out earlier.”
The process wasn't easy for him, he entered production on the film while coping with mental health issues. The process was revelatory for him. He saw himself in the archived performances at Harlem Cultural Festival, and was hopeful that others could find healing through it as well.
“We're just starting to talk about mental health conversations that we weren't having before,” said Thompson. “I would have never revealed that I've been in therapy for like 20 years in a publication because it was sort of like a source of shame. Like, ‘is Questlove crazy?’ We always associate that sort of thing like therapy as crazy. It's very dismissive. So the reason why I wanted to show Sonny Sharrock doing that guitar solo, or why you see people transfixed and in a trance when they're playing gospel, is because that was our form of release. That was our therapy. That's what kept us from suicide. That's what kept us from further abuse. That's what kept us from abusing ourselves.”
Thompson compares the vibe of his film to a church revival. He wants audiences to walk away from the project with a feeling of inspiration for the soul.
“I kind of want to plant a seed about spirituality, which is different from religion,” said Thompson. “When you see Abby Lincoln screaming, when you see Sonny Sharrock doing that solo, when you see Clara Walker and all these gospel singers with the wigs almost about to fall off, that's the common denominator.”