There are times throughout this film, Harlem’s 3rd annual Cultural festival that you’ll forget you’re visiting the year 1969 as the sweet sounds of legendary music is carried with vibrant imagery in footage that most will be viewing for the first time. In what become forgotten historical footage, the journey to so many will feel familiar. At the time, however, that was not ordinary.
“It was the ultimate black barbecue.” Musa Jackson a festival attendee recalled. “And then you start to hear music and someone speaking, and you knew it was something bigger.”
From a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder’s electric opening that bounces him from the microphone to the drums to Mahalia Jackson singing “Precious Lord” the festival touted as “Black Woodstock” will have you on your feet in no time. There are appearances from Nina Simone, Ray Barretto, Gladys Knight, and the Pips and B.B. King, but the biggest gift of the film is surrounded in its backstories.
The year 1969 is explained as a year in which African Americans are losing hope once again in its country after numerous black leaders and supporters are assassinated in a short period of time. Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy were all murdered between the years 1965-1968. Making 1969 a trying year for several Americans ready for a true change in society. Black Americans however were and still are long overdue in this arena, making the “revolution that could not be televised” that much more complex.
The film also goes into the war in Vietnam tying in the way black Americans are represented, and the beginning of what several refer to as a “Black Revolution.” So much as to a plethora of security members for the cultural festival were Black Panthers.
Sometimes you feel you’re in a lecture gaining all world knowledge, others you’re just vibing to great music by some of the greatest musicians history has ever offered. The setting of the film takes the audience back to Harlem, New York, a place nationally known for its impact on black art, civilization, and creativity, and while it’s framed as a concert built on healing, the crowd visuals bring overwhelming fun and happiness that is brought to several hearts so accustomed to pain.
“I was a little kid, walking around the park with my family and as far as I could see, it was just happy Black people.” Musa Jackson explained. “This was the first time I remember seeing so many of us. It was incredible!”
But Black people weren’t the only people of color represented, as Latin Music bandleader Ray Barretto assists in giving one of the film’s best performances. While Barretto is known by many for his influence on Latin-Jazz, the performance also shows the relationship to Spanish Harlem and the different sub-genres that were soon created
Even the performers could feel the “spirit” circulating in the air. As Mavis Staples who performed alongside her Rock and Roll and Blues Hall of Fame inducted group “The Staples Singers” recanted: “When I looked out into the crowd, I was overtaken with joy, I just saw so many Black people. And they were rejoicing, they were having a good time, and I started celebrating with them.”
With every performance comes a background story related to the artists, and related to the time America was in. It’s just a reminder of the ways people of color to this day take the scraps that are given and turn them into beautiful pictures. Almost every part of the film explores the reflection of racism, unjust, and poverty, but not long enough to escape the next song-driven in.
The beauty of Summer of Soul is in its ability to leave you with lessons and teachings, but keep you smiling and thankful. It’s the perfect balance between blunt history and a good time that makes you want to be around all of your loved ones.
Some will be shocked as to many of the issues that still remain in America today, and others will reminisce on old memories both good and bad. There will be dancing, singing, some head shaking, and maybe a tear, but the combination of emotions makes for one of the best films throughout the year 2021. It’s worth every star you can give, as every age group in the family is invited.