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

Summer of Soul” is a feature documentary on the Oscar shortlist about the legendary 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival which celebrated African American music and culture, and promoted Black pride and unity. The footage went untouched and unnoticed for 50 years before director Questlove received the green light to turn it into a proper film. For him, timing is the star of this project. Watch the exclusive video interview above.

“Had this come out in 2018 or 2019 this could have simply wound up one of the more brilliant concert films that came out that no one talked about a month after it was released,” the director explains. “When we’re editing in the summer of 2020, suddenly you don’t know the difference between the footage that we’re editing and what’s happening on the news. Once those things started to mirror each other we realized this is powerful work and this is how this speaks to this generation.”

“When Martin Luther King died there was anger in the nation,” Questlove describes while discussing the festival’s inception. “Cities were burning. Tony Lawrence (the festival organizer) figured that if we could come up with something that will keep residents happy, they might not burn up the city. The city agreed to it because the one lesson learned from the Civil Rights period is that all your leaders might die. They took it a step further and [decided to] document it and show it to the world.”

For reasons not explored until now, that concert was never shown. “I thought maybe the camera work sucks or the music was shoddy or maybe Stevie Wonder wasn’t big enough of a celebrity to gain interest,” Questlove admits. “I kept making excuses. Basically, it’s Black erasure. There’s sort of a benign level of racism that happens that we don’t speak about. For me it’s just as dangerous as if you’re fire bombing a church or assassinating someone.”

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