Date November 13, 2022
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In campus discussion, Questlove talks ‘Summer of Soul,’ preserving Black history

In a conversation held at the Watson Institute, the director of “Summer of Soul” shared how he resurrected 50-year-old, never-before-seen Harlem concert footage — and revealed what he left on the cutting room floor.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In the summer of 1969, the Harlem Cultural Festival brought some of music’s biggest acts to a park in New York City. Over six weekends, Black New Yorkers came in droves to see the likes of Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, B.B. King, the Staple Singers and countless other stars. 

The festival was filmed extensively — but for 50 years, no one saw the footage. The Harlem Cultural Festival fell into obscurity, a hazy memory few could recall decades later.

Why were the film reels stowed away, unseen, in a basement for half a century? According to Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, it’s partly because no one saw their gargantuan potential.

“At the end of the day… it was easily dismissed,” Thompson said. “This is show business: If it’s not an obvious knock out of the park [for profits], it’s very easy to dismiss.”

But Thompson wanted to put an end to those decades of dismissal. With permission from the festival’s film director, he and Joseph Patel, an award-winning producer, spent months reviewing dozens of hours of footage, editing it down to create the concert film “Summer of Soul,” released in 2021 to widespread acclaim. 

“Most African Americans live in this country under fight-or-flight or post-trauma,” Thompson said. “So for us to get any sort of ease, or a spark, is golden. It doesn’t happen that often. I often wonder [whether] a film of this magnitude… could have sparked inspiration for a whole generation of [Black] people. Fifty years out, it [could] still serve [that] purpose.”

Thompson — a musician, journalist, actor and filmmaker who is perhaps best known as joint frontman of the hip hop band the Roots and the musical director of “The Tonight Show” — spoke at Brown University on Saturday, Nov. 12, to a large audience of University and Providence community members who had gathered to hear behind-the-scenes details about “Summer of Soul,” which Thompson directed. Patel, the film’s producer, joined Thompson on stage. Tricia Rose, director of Brown’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, moderated the conversation.

The event was held at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and was part of its John F. Kennedy Jr. Initiative for Documentary Film and Social Progress. Begun in 2021, the series underscores the important role  documentaries play in understanding and confronting challenging social issues. Earlier in the day, Thompson had also taken part in an intimate discussion with Brown students at the Watson Institute.

For many Black New Yorkers, Patel said, the Harlem Cultural Festival was about more than music. He said the film touches briefly, but notably, on the cultural context in which the festival occurred: It was just one year after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a series of high-profile incidents of police violence against Black Americans.

Patel and Thompson had originally envisioned creating a concert film with no added context — a kind of “cool mixtape,” Thompson said — until they discovered that the Harlem Cultural Festival was created as a means of boosting Black pride following years of hardships for the community.

“When you start to…unpeel all those layers, how the festival even came to be, why it wasn’t remembered…it became quickly evident that we had to have context,” Patel said. “One of the things we talked about when we started the film… is, if we do this correctly, you’ll never be able to talk about the summer of ‘69 again without mentioning the Harlem Cultural Festival. Being able to put it back on the timeline was important to us.”

Patel and Thompson explained that the concert footage offers a glimpse into the joys and fears Black Americans experienced at that time. In the midst of Nina Simone’s performance, one camera caught Simone in the foreground, positioned between an enraptured audience and several New York City Police Department officers, who appeared tense as if expecting an outbreak of violence any moment. (In reality, there was no reported violence at the festival.) During Sly and the Family Stone’s set, cameras passed over several older audience members who at first appeared skeptical of Sly Stone’s velour shirt and bell bottoms.

“That performance was so revolutionary, because America never saw an interracial band like that before in their regular clothes,” Thompson said. “I can’t stress enough: If this [conversation] were 50 years ago, I would have been made to wear a suit. [If you were Black], you had to show you were harmless. [There’s a] story of how there’s a really conservative… resistance with a lot of the over-25 Black people who didn’t know what to make of this new liberation they were watching onstage. It’s important to see that victory… at the end where [Sly Stone] completely had them in the palm of his hands.”

“ What they’re going through in the movie… we’re now living in real time. ”

Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson Director, "Summer of Soul"

That’s one of many moments Thompson and Patel regrettably left on the cutting room floor, Thompson said, in favor of other, more timely moments. The duo said they fought to retrieve never-aired CBS footage showing Black Americans’ underwhelmed reaction to the Apollo 11 moon landing, a refutation of the popular narrative that that event brought all Americans together in celebration. Patel said the clips seemed especially relevant in 2021, when billionaire Jeff Bezos’ flight to space dominated headlines, even as Black Americans continued to be victims of deadly, racist police violence.

Thompson noted that he also changed the film’s ending in the wake of George Floyd’s 2020 murder at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. He initially planned to close out with footage of Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson teaming up to sing the gospel song “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” — but in the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, such an ending felt disingenuous.

“Before the pandemic, before George Floyd, that ending would have seemed rather apropos — a passing of the torch, a 'kumbaya' moment,” Thompson said. “The summer of 2020 was so chaotic that we weren’t feeling, as a country, that feel-good feeling. [We were feeling] the Nina Simone version of the festival. What they’re going through in the movie… we’re now living in real time.”

Rose mused that the constant erasure of Black Americans’ history — like the cast-aside CBS footage, or the forgotten Harlem Cultural Festival reels — could contribute to the feeling that history keeps repeating itself, with progress toward racial equity either slow or nonexistent. Thompson agreed — and challenged Black audience members to combat the erasure by holding on to their memories and recording their older relatives’ recollections.

“We are literally living in a time in which we are fighting tooth and nail to have memories and remember things,” he said. “Oftentimes, you don’t think you’re living through history, [but] history is what happened 50 years ago and history is what happened one minute ago. Save your history.”