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Summer of Soul is more than a movie: it’s a miracle

Summer of Soul pop-up card design, Alyssa Stormes, 2021.

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s directorial debut is more than a documentary; it’s a time capsule of an unseen music festival featuring the biggest artists of the 1960s and 70s. And, it almost never saw the light of day.

The Harlem Cultural Festival took place over six weekends in the summer of 1969 in the heart of Harlem, the same summer as the famed Woodstock Festival. The bill was stacked: Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, B.B. King, 5th Dimension, all outdoors, and all absolutely free to the community. On top of all that, the entire festival was filmed.

So, why haven’t we heard about it? Woodstock is synonymous with music festivals, but how could a similar caliber festival happening at the same time, only two hours away, only be making headlines 50 years later? Hint: it starts with ‘w’ and ends with ‘hite supremacy.’ That and the fact that the footage has been in boxes in a basement since 1970.

Interspersed with interviews of artists and festival goers as they react to seeing the footage for the first time, the documentary is mainly performances and backstories of the musical acts, but the film as a whole tells a much bigger story. During a time when white men were going to the moon and black families were starving, the festival captures the politics of the time without actively trying to, including candid interviews from the residents surrounding Mount Morris Park.

The footage of the performances is beyond phenomenal. With one main stage to cover, it’s like a front row ticket to a soul lover’s dream concert. Watching these musical giants watch themselves as ingenues is nothing short of magic. You’re transported back in time, complete with matching costumes and synchronized choreography. Each performance is an education through the musical diversity within the communities around Harlem and the black community at large. African-American soul merges with Afro-Cuban drum lines to pop hits like “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.” It’s a true melting pot experience, in both musicians and festival attendees. The electricity of the crowd jumps off the screen, and shows the kind of community event that we should advocate for in our own neighborhoods.

This film needs to be protected, nurtured, and shared over and over again. A sentiment first discovered by those interviewed in the film, ‘this is a rare time when every single person on screen is black.’ It’s untouched, unbiased, and nearly unbelievable if it weren’t for the visceral interviews by the festival attendees. One man shares, “Now I know I wasn’t crazy!”, after seeing the footage for the first time. Questlove has masterfully taken nearly 40 hours of footage and crafted a love letter to black culture that transcends the decades lost. Do not miss this vital piece of black celebration and homage to musical royalty; your soul will thank you.

Where to watch: MSP Film Society in Minneapolis, MN, streaming on Hulu, in theaters nationwide.


Alyssa Stormes is a filmmaker, performer, and visual artist based in Minneapolis. She has a degree in Film from the University of Iowa, and over 10+ years critiquing and creating visual storytelling. Learn more about Alyssa here.


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