Review: The spirit of ‘Summer of Soul’: An archive for the modern day

Questlove’s directorial debut both captures the magic of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival and celebrates the essential music of Black America.

The 5th Dimension performs at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969. In his directorial debut, Questlove’s Summer of Soul creates a time capsule of the essential music of Black America. (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

The 5th Dimension performs at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969. In his directorial debut, Questlove’s Summer of Soul creates a time capsule of the essential music of Black America. (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

Ava Emilione, Contributing Writer

My memories of living in Harlem endure within me: the mixtapes sold along 125th Street, the bright lights of the Apollo Theater and the pride of living in a mecca of Black culture. To live in Harlem is to be transformed and defined by experiences of simultaneous struggle and hope. These memories led me to believe that Questlove’s directorial debut, “Summer of Soul,” a documentary about Harlem’s 1969 Cultural Festival, would be an unmissable watch. Utilizing archival footage revealing the essence of Black America and its music, “Summer of Soul offers a glimpse into a cultural mecca and Black promised land that is deeply relevant to modern audiences.

The timing of the documentary’s release in summer 2021 heightened the film’s cultural relevance. The COVID-19 pandemic had disproportionately impacted Black and brown communities, shutting down community centers, canceling cultural events and robbing us of our elders and their precious memories. This collective suffering collided with the trauma of the previous years of police brutality and killings, protests and controversial verdicts for killer cops. Black and brown communities, especially in the inner city, had to witness the murder of our people at the hands of the police; we had to, and continue to have to, educate our non-Black peers on our suffering  — again — and rally the world behind us — again, again and again. 

The burning desire for community has risen like a phoenix amid despair, fatigue and isolation. Questlove taps into this desire by depicting to a contemporary audience the communal experience of attending the 1969 Cultural Festival more than 50 years ago. Featuring seemingly endless footage of Black joy and Black musical legends such as Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone, the film transported me to the moment; I could almost feel the heat of the bodies shown on screen. I sang along to “Oh Happy Day,” imagining my afroed grandma hanging off the barricades. 

Questlove also breaks down the barrier between his subjects and the subject matter, including footage and reactions of festival attendees and performers rewatching the event for the first time in decades. The faces of Musa Jackson, a festival attendee, and members from The 5th Dimension, who performed at the festival, crumple as they witness the footage, shed tears in sacred and authentic remembrance. Jackson takes a second to gather himself before telling Questlove, “What I knew is real. I’m not crazy.” To remember and to witness lived experiences with an open heart is to pay homage to the past and validate our own personal and intergenerational memories. This is a type of healing process. In many ways, “Summer of Soul” is exactly the redemptive and joyful narrative the Black community needs right now. 

Tony Lawrence, the director and producer of the 1969 Cultural Festival, frequently referenced “soul” and “the spirit” to the festival audience. This element of soul defines the viewing experience of “Summer of Soul,” but the technical definition of soul itself is elusive. Normally, the soul is a singular entity defining an individual’s unseen aspects. How should we consider soul music when applied to a collective? 

One moment that feels particularly symbolic is Mahalia Jackson’s performance of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” the song that Martin Luther King Jr. requested with his last words to be played at the service he was planning to attend that evening. In her closeup performance, which seems far more intimate than performative, I could see tears forming in her eyes as they swelled in mine. I felt the tangled emotional web of being Black in America unravel within me. This scene reveals the debilitating grief for the legions of Black Americans — including prominent leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X —who have been robbed of their lives. “I am weak,” Jackson sings. The sequence is imbued with the fatigue of trying to exist in a world that is built against us. “I am tired, I am worn,” she continues. 

The deep, ancient desire to be led to a place in which we must no longer fight — “Take my hand, precious Lord, and lead me home,” she finishes — reverberated in my soul. In his interview, Reverend Al Sharpton reflects, “Gospel was the therapy for the stress and pressure of being Black in America.” Indeed, viewing the film’s footage was cathartic after years of witnessing endless racialized brutality. 

In another scene, “Summer of Soul” quotes MLK’s “Mountaintop” speech, in which King said “I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land.” In a sense, Questlove depicts the Harlem Cultural Festival as a microcosm of King’s Promised Land. In “Soulsville, USA,” as Lawrence calls the festival, Black people could wear dashikis and full afros without ridicule, gather in a safe space without apprehension and dread, and be protected by respected members of their community, the Black Panthers. The soul of the festival was born out of a Black collective able to unify through shared emotions and experiences. Questlove allows modern Black audiences to see that spaces in which soul abounds are not only possible for us, but deeply necessary.

While the emotional aspects of “Summer of Soul” are groundbreaking, Questlove falters on certain historical subjects. Referencing the murders of MLK and Malcolm X, inner-city poverty and the rise of the Black Panthers, the film focuses on historical context that is already embedded in Black America’s consciousness. Questlove misses opportunities to dissect Harlem’s rich history. Instead, he quickly summarizes topics such as the interplay between what he refers to as militant and nonviolent groups of Black thought. His scattered mentions of the Black Panther Party struggle to represent the scope of the party’s positive influence on the communities they served. However, these flaws are minimized when you recognize that “Summer of Soul” provides a conceptual experience of the cultural festival, not primarily its political context. 

With generations of Black women before me who have made their way in Harlem’s landscape, I did not take Philadelphia native Questlove’s undertaking lightly. I logged into Hulu with a simultaneously hopeful and critical eye, secretly praying his directorial debut would live up to the lively trailers. Two hours later, with a notebook full of notes and a heart full of complicated emotions, I was confident that he had not disappointed

Before the screen fades to black, Musa Jackson says of the festival, “How beautiful it was.” I was left with a similar sense of how beautiful it is to be Black here, right now. “Summer of Soul” is more than a collage of archives — it is a testament to the rich beauty and adaptability of the Black community. You should notice how I don’t mention our strength or resilience; we must resist the assumption that the Black community gains its vitality solely through struggle. “Summer of Soul” is necessary because it demonstrates that we dance, sing and celebrate despite poverty, inequality and political strife — not because of it. Through it all, we are beautiful, we are soul.

Contact Ava Emilione at [email protected].