Greetings again from the darkness. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s directorial debut is a history lesson wrapped in a concert film, and it’s just the blended spoonful we need. You might know Questlove best as the bandleader/drummer on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon”, and with this documentary, he has proven his skill in balancing the visuals with the message. The Harlem Cultural Festival was held over six weekends in the summer of 1969. Yep, the same summer as (and only 100 miles from) the infamous and celebrated Woodstock festival. A total of 300,000 people attended the free events held in Mt Morris Park in Harlem, and Questlove’s film brings back what has been forgotten.
TV director Hal Tulchin filmed each week’s concert in hopes that it would have market value as a broadcast event. When he was unable to market the footage, all 47 reels remained stashed in his basement for 50 years. Questlove weaves a magic carpet that injects interviews, statements, and news clips over the powerful music being performed on stage. We get interviews with festival attendees, musicians, NY Times reporter Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and historical perspective from news clips of Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. The festival was organized to commemorate MLK’s death the previous year, and at a time when the black community felt much anger and unrest. The Black Panthers were brought in for security as drugs had spiraled out of control in Harlem.
It was never just about the music, but what music it was! Gospel, blues, soul, and R&B filled the air, as the crowd cheered, danced, and sang along. We learn Maxwell House coffee served as the key sponsor, and there is a segment on NYC Mayor Lindsay, who supported the festival and was well-respected in the Black community. Tony Lawrence, a lounge singer and radio DJ, served as the festival’s host and producer. He introduced each of the acts, and did so with quite a flair for fashion.
The performers aren’t necessarily shown in the same order as the festival, but that matters little. Stevie Wonder is at a decisive point in his career, and his drum solo (yes, drums) is energizing. We also get to see and hear such acts as BB King, the 5th Dimension, the Staples Singers, Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Nina Simone. There is an audio recording of Mavis Staples recalling how “unreal” it was for her to sing with Mahalia. Other highlights include David Ruffin hitting and holding a high note on “My Girl”, the Edwin Hawkins Singers performing “Oh, Happy Day”, Hugh Maskela jolting the crowd with “Grazing in the Grass”, and Sly and the Family Stone (and their “white drummer”) leading the audience through “Higher”. The late Nina Simone comes across as especially regal and powerful in her time on stage. There are clips of comedian Moms Mabley performing, as well as Jesse Jackson orating. Lin-Manuel Miranda discusses the music of Puerto Rico and Spanish Harlem, and one of the most touching segments finds Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr recalling the backstory of how The 5th Dimension came to record “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine in”.
Early marketing attempts re-branded the festival as “Black Woodstock”, but that didn’t change the fact that the market was limited at the time. Festival-attendee Musa Jackson is interviewed as he watches the film, and it’s clear that it’s an affirmation of the era. It’s also fascinating to hear Charlayne Hunter-Gault recount how she fought the NY Times over her preferred description of people as “Black” rather than the previously utilized “Negro”. Questlove’s film immediately becomes a historical time capsule and one that should be viewed by many.
Available on Hulu