While the rest of America was celebrating the Apollo 11 moon landing in the summer of 1969, Harlem was awash in the sounds of soul, blues, jazz, gospel, and pop. There at Mount Morris (now Marcus Garvey) Park, it was a different leap for mankind. The Harlem Cultural Festival, a concert series held over six Sundays, featured a seemingly infinite Rushmore of Black music icons: a then 19-year-old Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, B.B. King, David Ruffin, and the Staple Singers, to name just a few. Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke. Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson practically ripped the clouds out of the sky with their gospel duet. It all started in the weeks before Woodstock.
And yet, the remarkable festival footage lay dormant for 50 years before the Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson unfurled it for his directorial debut, Summer of Soul. The documentary—in theaters and on Hulu July 2, after winning top awards at Sundance—functions as both a concert film and a loving artifact of Black music amid the Civil Rights Movement. “Never mind the moon,” one festival-goer says in the doc. “Let’s get some of that cash in Harlem.”
Questlove first discovered the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1997 during a Roots tour stop in Tokyo, where he sat in the Soul Train Café dazzled by a two-minute bootleg clip of Sly and the Family Stone’s set, shown on a video screen. “I didn’t know they were playing to an all-Black crowd,” he recalled to Pitchfork. “I saw the word ‘festival’ and thought, Obviously it must be in Switzerland or Montrose.” Two decades later, producers unearthed 40 hours of lost footage from the late videographer Hal Tulchin and tapped Questlove to condense it into archival gold. It was no easy feat, with the original cut clocking in at three and a half hours: “Cutting 90 minutes was one of the most painful things I’ve ever done,” he said. The result is a breathtaking capsule of Black music history that gives as much energy and gravity to the performances as it does to artists’ and attendees’ relived memories of the event.
Talking over Zoom from his office at The Tonight Show in June, Questlove discussed the daunting task of chronicling and curating such a timeless display of grandeur.
Pitchfork: In documenting this type of lost Black culture, a powerful thing happens. It’s rewriting history by actually writing us into it. What sense of obligation did you feel while working on the film?
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson: When I was going through that funk of “ugh, I don’t know if I can do this,” my girlfriend snapped me out of it. Like: This is bigger than you. This is your chance to make history. It’s bigger than your nervousness of getting a bad review or embarrassing yourself in your directorial debut. This is your chance to right a wrong. It’s weird because the main motherlode of the interview weeks was March 13, 2020. And within days, the world was shut down. For half a second, I was like, I guess it was nice working with you guys, see ya. You’re watching death after death after death every night. Trucks of body bags on the corner. Who has the time to think about a movie when it’s like, is my mom going to be alive? After a two-week panic period, we got it together. We figured out inventive ways to conduct interviews. Mavis is a great example. We had this wheelie device that was like the Mars rovers, with a camera crew in the hallway of her apartment. They had to remote control this thing inside her apartment, and we did our audio interview that way. The timing of making this film changed this film.
Was there any point where you felt like people wouldn’t care?
No. It was gold. If anything, it was an embarrassment of riches. It was too much. I kept this on a 24-hour loop for about six months straight. Slept to it. Traveled to it. It was the only thing I consumed. I didn’t watch any movies, television shows. Nothing. If something hit me, I wanted to get it organically. While the master reel was being reprocessed and digitized—which took like five months—anything interesting I saw, I noted. When I felt that I had enough goosebump moments, I curated it like I curate my DJ sets or like I curate a show. I work backward. Always start with the ending first, and then work my way to the front.