The small rural county of Bethel in New York State was chosen to host a musical event, from August 15-18, 1969, that has gone down in history as Woodstock. Three days of “peace and rock music” that became a legend, with countless films and documentaries dedicated to this hippie event par excellence.
Meanwhile, only 160 kilometers away, Mount Morris Park (now renamed Marcus Garvey Park) in the heart of Harlem hosted the Harlem Cultural Festival to celebrate the best of black culture. The Festival included six musical concerts between June 29 and August 24 of that same year.
It survived, recorded on film for over 50 years and today it lives again thanks to “Summer of Soul (Or… When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” a documentary recently released by Searchlight Pictures, and directed by the musician and songwriter, QuestLove.
The documentary restores and reassembles film of the concert. Despite the big names involved, from Mahalia Jackson to Stevie Wonder, from Mavis Staples to Nina Simone, the original footage was never officially distributed, relegating the entire concert series to oblivion. The importance of this film is linked to the story of a very significant moment in the history of the United States: “It is a snapshot of an America in transformation, the story of the year in which we blacks began to love each other and to think: black is beautiful.”
The documentary carries testimonies from those who were there, and an analysis of that very special year in America’s history, in which part of the black community had been shipped off to Vietnam, while those at home were forced to deal with unemployment, inequality, racism and drugs. Heroin was killing at frightening rates in the summer of 1969 and the black community in New York was hit hard.
Through “Summer of Soul,” musicians help us discover the emotions, feelings, fears, loves and the many other intense experiences during the hot summer of 1969, full of confrontations and significant events. “The power of music,” Lin-Manuel Miranda points out in the film, “comes from telling our stories.”
This is precisely what characterizes “Summer of Soul,” where a song manages to bring to life, for example, the image of Martin Luther King, killed in Memphis in April 1968. In a moment that is euphoric and touching in equal measure, Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples perform a duet of Reverend King’s favorite song, Take My Hand, Precious Lord, in front of a visibly moved audience.
It is a uniquely emotional historical documentary that is deeply relevant 50 years later. In the words of Nina Simone, at the end of “Summer of Soul”: “How can you be an artist and not talk about what’s going on?”
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no.11 art. 7, 1121: 10.32009/22072446.1121.7