By Saffron Dale
In the words of Nina Simone, “Are you ready to hear, are you ready to feel, are you ready to do?”. Simone poses these questions to her black audience of the Harlem Culture Festival that Questlove’s music film/documentary is based on. Yet, I wonder whether Questlove includes Simone’s words, to open the eyes and ears of white viewers who have been ignorant to and complicit in black struggles, for centuries. This is what Questlove’s ‘Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)’ certainly did for me. The music film/documentary focuses on the unseen footage of the Harlem Culture Festival held at Mount Morris Park, New York in the summer of 1969. As a white viewer, I left the cinema sickened to be inherently complicit in a system that suppressed the voices of such world-renowned black talent for the likes of competing festivals showcasing white artists.
The concert film not only depicted the musical talent of black artists in the 60’s, but also the shift in black identity and the volatile political climate that made the festival a chapter, rather than a footnote, in black history.
The documentary uncovered the most memorable parts of the 40 hours of unseen footage of the festival and interviewed an array of black audience members and artists about the impact the festival had on black identity. Although Hal Tulchin and Tony Lawrence attempted to get stations to publicize the event, competing festivals that featured predominantly white artists, like Woodstock, stole the limelight. Yet, the concert film not only depicted the musical talent of black artists in the 60’s, but also the shift in black identity and the volatile political climate that made the festival a chapter, rather than a footnote, in black history. Acts such as Sly & the Family Stone, the Afro-psychedelic band, showcased a bohemian style that pre-empted the self-expression that defined the 70’s. I, too, couldn’t resist shopping for 70’s inspired outfits after seeing how cool Sly Stone pulled it off! Similarly, it was evident that artists like Nina Simone used her platform as a chance to promote the beauty of black people, igniting a feeling of self-acceptance amongst black people that was only just coming into being.
Coincidentally, as a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder was performing, Neal Armstrong became the first man to land on the moon. The documentary covered the conflicting reactions amongst Harlem festivalgoers toward the moon landing, many arguing that money was better put toward the poor communities of Harlem. As an ignorant white spectator, I was at first in disbelief that audience members had decided to miss the moon landing. However, as the documentary continued, it began to unnerve me that most of the world turned their TV’s on to watch one man travel nearly 250,000 miles outer space than watch nearly 30 of America’s most talented artists changing black history, here on earth. Moreover, it seemed almost depressing that the US spent $28 billion sending one white man to the moon whilst black people were living in poverty in Harlem, fighting just to be listened to and taken seriously. Yet, the main takeaway from the documentary is not only how unjustly black people were treated in 1969, but to demonstrate how this unjust treatment still remains in the form of the erasure of black history today. Not only do we barely learn about African culture in history lessons, but almost no one even heard the voices of many of the performers at the Harlem Culture Festival only 50 years ago, deprived of their voice by the systemic racism infecting media outlets.
We must be constantly asking ourselves as viewers, ‘Are you ready to do?’
We must ask ourselves, how much have things changed? It is only recently that popular TV shows like Sex Education have given black characters bigger roles and screen time. Yet, black erasure comes in all shapes and sizes. Usually, the lines of black characters come from white novelists and the depiction of black experience comes from white directors. Questlove’s ‘Summer of Soul’ brings this issue to light in the form of black music erasure. All in all, the concert film is fundamental in bringing to light not only unseen footage of black voices, but an issue that remains covert. I cannot criticise Questlove’s documentary in any way since every piece of footage and every interview that was shown was essential in celebrating the strength, joy, and talent of the black community. Therefore, I wouldn’t recommend that you watch it, but I’d instead instruct you to watch it (it’s on Disney+ if you follow my orders)! Meanwhile, we must be constantly asking ourselves as viewers ‘Are you ready to do?’
Illustration by: Saffron Dale