‘Summer of Soul’ director Questlove on rediscovering the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival

“This was me getting a rare chance to correct Black history,” declares Questlove about his directorial debut “Summer of Soul.” The critically-acclaimed documentary about the largely forgotten Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and earned six nominations at this year’s Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards. For Questlove, a five-time Grammy winning musician, tackling his first film came with a sense of caution and a sense of responsibility. “I’ll say that it was intimidating at first, but I felt an obligation and a pressure to really do right by history,” he explains. Check out our exclusive video interview above.

The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival featured performances from many of the greatest black artists of the time including Stevie Wonder, Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight, BB King and Nina Simone. The festival attracted an audience of nearly 300,000 people over the course of six concerts. However the festival was overshadowed by larger cultural touchstones, specifically Woodstock and the moon landing. The film highlights the festival’s importance at a time when black Americans were under fire both socially and economically, coming after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Robert Kennedy.

Much of the Hulu film’s concert performances are pulled from more than 40 hours of footage from the festival, footage that sat in a basement for nearly five decades. In choosing which performances to feature, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson approached the daunting task much in the same way he approaches his musical projects. “I treated [making the film] as I do with how I make my music,” he explains, “which is at the of the day, you’ve got to be a storyteller.”

Questlove sought to make the film as accessible to a variety of audiences as possible. That initially monumental task, says the director, became somewhat easier following the tumultuous events of 2019 and 2020. ” Every day, something new was happening,” he says. “The worrying about the virus spreading and protecting our families, civil unrest in the streets with George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, then the confusion over the election. You can’t tell the difference between modern news footage and the footage we have in our movie. That’s when I realized this is how you’re going to connect to millennials and Generation Z… they’re living this right now.”

As leader of The Roots, he has been in charge of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” music since 2014. He has also served as the Academy Awards music director for the past two ceremonies.

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