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Movie Review: The 'Summer Of Soul' Actually Happened. And Now We Have Proof.

Everybody knows that when you make a mixtape, you gotta kick it off with a killer track, to grab attention. The organizers of last winter’s Sundance Film Festival realized this too, and opened their festival with a banger: Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). The documentary is about the mostly forgotten (or, maybe more accurately, mostly erased) 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of concerts that that drew hundreds of thousands of people and brought in some of the biggest names in all of music, including Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Sly Stone, Max Roach, B.B. King, and The Staple Singers, just to name a very few. Tons of footage of the festival was shot, and then lay in a basement for 50 years, only now being seen for the very first time. Which seems insane, although the reasons are depressingly believable, and here we are.

This is the directorial debut of the well-known musician Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson (a Philadelphian, Thompson bills his film as "A Questlove Jawn," making use of what must be one of the most entertaining and interesting regionalisms in existence), and he's clearly got a musician's instinct for how to tell a story using momentum, dynamic changes, and rhythm. We get plenty of concert footage, but rather than let this simply be a concert film-- which, believe me, would have been absolutely fine-- he uses the music as a soundtrack for putting the festival in its proper context, with interviews, archival footage, and photographs giving us a sense of a volatile place at a volatile time, with a combustible community being pulled and pushed in many directions. As one person says (paraphrasing), "They might've put on the festival so black folks didn't burn down the city." But, for that summer at least, they had this festival, which we can now see did actually happen, despite any efforts to shove it down the memory hole.

If I have a complaint, it's that this wasn't about eight hours long, but I figure that would have been a harder sell.


A version of this review originally ran as part of Fletcher Powell's 2021 Sundance Film Festival coverageSummer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is available beginning July 2 on Hulu.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.