Monday, March 21, 2022

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Mahalia Jackson with Mayor John Lindsay

Mayor John Lindsay

Lindsay escorted by Black Panther security

Chambers Brothers
Abbey Lincoln


Rev. Jesse Jackson

5th Dimension

Billy Davis and Marilyn McCoo

Gladys Knight and the Pips

Stevie Wonder

B.B. King

Rev. Jesse Jackson

Mavis Staples (left) with Sister Mahalia Jackson

Hugh Masekela

Sly and the Family Stone

Nina Simone

Amir “Questlove” Thompson

Hal Tulchin, 1969

SUMMER OF SOUL (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)        B+                   USA  (118 mi)  2021  d:  Amir-Khalib “Questlove” Thompson

Sitting on the shelf for 50-years, this documents the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of six consecutive summer Sunday afternoons from June 29 through August 24, featuring some of the best black musical talent for free, but overlooked as it took place the same time as Michael Wadleigh’s epic documentary of a watershed, countercultural music festival, WOODSTOCK (1970), which took place 100-miles away in upstate New York.  Wadleigh’s mostly white film received all the media attention, winner of Best Documentary at the 1971 Academy Awards, though some months later the West coast wanted their own version of “Woodstock West,” holding a free concert at the Altamont Speedway 60-miles East of San Francisco, which turned into an unmitigated disaster when the Hell’s Angels, supposedly paid to provide security, murdered a young black man just 20-feet in front of the stage as the Rolling Stones were playing, captured in Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin’s Gimme Shelter (1970).  While those films drew attention, this film shot in Harlem floundered, as footage was never edited, and was eventually forgotten, shot by TV producer Hal Tulchin using 5 cameras at what was then Mount Morris Park (later renamed Marcus Garvey Park), drawing over 300,000 people, designating the film “Black Woodstock” in order to garner attention, but no distributors at the time would finance a film, so 50-hours of unedited film sat unused until the project was turned over to Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson, a drummer, deejay, record producer, and founder of the Roots, best known as the house band for Jimmy Fallon, who edited the film, adding several current voices along with a healthy mix of concert footage, creating a musical stream-of-conscious montage on the developing black identity, assembling historical footage that provided the backdrop, helping modern day viewers digest just exactly what transpired that summer.  Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for a Documentary and the Audience Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, this film joins the 1972 found footage of Aretha Franklin singing gospel in church, as documented in Sydney Pollack and Alan Eliot’s 2019 Top Ten List #5 Amazing Grace, another film that sat on the shelf for more than four decades.  These revival films, for lack of a better term, take us back to a different era, providing commentary on the state of the nation at that time.  In the summer of 1969, blacks were still called Negroes by mainstream media, reeling from the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother Robert during his Presidential campaign, the Reverend Martin Luther King, and black Muslim minister and human rights activist Malcolm X, each one of which took something out of the spirit of the 60’s, where social movements promised to deliver a more just society, yet this never happened, instead replaced by the law and order rhetoric that carried Richard Nixon into the White House in 1968, with Republicans adopting the Southern strategy of exacerbating black and white racial tension in the South, taking advantage of white resentment over the Civil Rights and Voting Rights gains made by blacks, creating a polarizing effect still felt in the region more than five decades later.  A Presidential Party intentionally excluding racial progress may help explain why the 1969 Harlem Cultural festival was minimized to such an extent and so completely overlooked, as there were simply no positive stories about blacks at the time, a community that was largely disillusioned, as instead stories permeated around the killing of Black Panthers, lost lives in Vietnam where a majority of the returning dead were blacks sent to the front lines, massive arrests and incarceration of black people, where even on television blacks were continually associated with the criminal element, typecast as petty thieves, junkies, prostitutes, or drug pushers.  This may account for such radically differing views heard at the festival towards the heralded moon landing that summer, as whites were completely enthralled while blacks seemed more blasé, believing the money could be better spent feeding poor people in America.      

The film sat in Tulchin’s basement all those years until he died in 2017, at which point producer Robert Fyvolent found out about it and bought the rights, hiring Questlove to assemble a film from the massive footage, tracking down several people who attended the festival, adding a few commentators, including several of the performers themselves, giving the film a more personalized glimpse at the historical implications.  It’s not really a concert film, as performances are continually interrupted, which is the film’s biggest flaw, becoming instead a cinematic essay of historical context, drawing parallels to the summer of 2020 following the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter social protest movements around the world that arose from that event.  So the opening moments are a bit jagged with talk as it takes its time finding a musical rhythm, peppered with archival material about the social injustice of the times, but unless you lived through it, most people will have little understanding of what the 60’s were like, as women and minorities were routinely overlooked, still relegated to the margins of political rhetoric and speeches, not yet obtaining their rightful place at the table of American democracy, where sexism and racism were still the norm.  So this black music festival, an oasis of harmony and tranquility, went largely underreported, flying under the radar, as few whites participated, so it was never part of any mainstream media which still largely appealed only to whites.  Little coming out of Harlem was ever mentioned on American airwaves, so this film revives all that was initially missed, providing a modern era perspective that glorifies the pride and beauty of being black, celebrating black heritage through the power of music.  As blacks took to the streets after the assassination of Martin Luther King, creating a succession of infamous burnings in more than 100 cities across America, much of what was destroyed has still not been rebuilt some 50 years later, with many New York politicians fearing a recurrence of more uprisings on the anniversary of King’s death one year later, so there was a train of thought that these musical offerings in Harlem were specifically designed to prevent blacks from taking to the streets.  The contrast between the violent lootings and destruction of property with the overall peace and harmony of this summer music festival couldn’t be more pronounced, as there isn’t a hint of animosity or discord, instead this is one of the earliest expressions of black unity and love, a kind of model for what can exist in the future.  Because an open animosity existed between the black community and the mostly white police force, the Black Panthers provided the security, an East coast version of the Hell’s Angels providing security at Altamont, though a small police presence eventually made its way to the festival.  While sponsored by Maxwell House and the New York City government, without money for lights, the entire festival took place during the day, where the stage faced the natural light of the sun, always keeping the performers in the light.  That left the audience out in the sun as well, with many quickly finding shady spots, but most were left exposed to the sun, where the relaxed nature of the event was like an outdoor barbeque with family and friends.  The emcee for the event is Caribbean lounge singer and concert promoter Tony Lawrence, originally from St. Kitts, an employee of the parks and recreation department of New York City and a man described as “a hustler, in the best sense,” introducing New York Mayor John Lindsay, a liberal Republican, who showed up in the right places, and Stevie Wonder, just age 19 at the time, before he broke from Motown and became a megastar on his own, singing The Isley Brother’s “It’s Your Thing,” before breaking into a drum solo, appearing later singing “Shoo-Bee-Doo-Bee-Doo-Da Day,” where he ended up furiously playing lower register bass notes on the keyboards until someone came and re-centered his position back to the middle,  The Chambers Brothers follow singing “Uptown,” also B.B. King playing the blues, Gladys Knight and the Pips singing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” David Ruffin, a soloist breaking away from The Temptations, sings “My Girl,” with the 5th Dimension singing the medley “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” from the extraordinarily popular Broadway musical Hair, while the married couple Billy Davis and Marilyn McCoo are seen watching a video of themselves, marveling at how young they were, but also happy they were finally gaining acceptance by blacks, as hearing them on the radio many thought they were white.  The music is more in the background as Rev. Al Sharpton and others remind us of the fractious times, with the black community split between following the non-violence of Dr. King and the more militant Black Power branch of Stokely Carmichael that wanted a black revolution.

While there are a host of attendees and commentators offering their own perspective of the festival, where their voices are mixed into heavily edited footage, the stream of music doesn’t really get rolling until the gospel section, starting with the Edwin Hawkins Singers with “Oh Happy Day,” featuring Shirley Miller as the soloist, a moving and extremely uplifting hit that crossed over into mainstream radio, shooting to number one in the San Francisco Bay area, where it played regularly, eventually touring with secular artists, drawing the ire of religious groups that condemned them, yet they were extremely devout, preaching the gospel through music and spreading the spirit, finding a new generation of followers.  But the true star is none other than Chicago’s own Mavis Staples, a soulful force who becomes the emotional core of the film, first appearing with her sisters Cleotha and Cynthia along with the strumming electric guitar of Pops Staples and the Staple Singers, singing the lead in a rousing version of “Help Me Jesus,” clapping their hands, rocking the house, using the call and response style which simply wakes up the audience and fills them with a joyful spirit, with Mavis providing the commentary, taken aback by the size of the crowd, all having a good time, so she felt like celebrating with them.  As a popular group, they were invited to Folk, Jazz, and Blues Festivals, where every kind of music is heard in their songs.  Pops was born in Mississippi where picking cotton was part of his black heritage, where the songs they played is what he heard with his family growing up in the Mississippi Delta.  A group of gospel singers follow, where spirit possession is part of the black religious experience, differing somewhat from white Christianity (with the possible exception of the Holy Rollers), as it comes from Africa, with the body erupting with the Holy Spirit seeking catharsis and a peaceful release.  According to Rev. Al Sharpton, “Gospel was more than religious.  Gospel was the therapy for the stress and pressure of being black in America.”  Psychiatry never made much of a presence in black communities, but they did have Mahalia Jackson, the most influential gospel singer in history, selling more than 22 million records during her lifetime.  According to journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, one of the first blacks admitted to the University of Georgia, “Gospel’s part of our DNA.  It’s deep in the recesses of our consciousness…During the Civil Rights Movement, the church provided sustenance for us, helped us march on, helped generations of people confront some of the most vicious, violent acts.”  She’s speaking from experience, as she recalls being harassed by white students at the University of Georgia, making noise and stomping on the floor directly above her, but she drew strength and comfort from listening to Nina Simone records.  The highlight of the film is the incredibly moving sequence of Mahalia Jackson singing Dr. King’s favorite gospel song “Precious Lord” along with Mavis Staples, who idolized Mahalia Jackson, where the opportunity to sing with her is filled with reverence and supreme admiration, perhaps the only unedited song heard to its completion in the entire film, with the musical backing of Ben Branch and the Operation Breadbasket Orchestra and Choir, where Rev. Jesse Jackson sets the stage, describing the exact moment in Memphis when Dr. King was shot, claiming he referenced the song in his final words, creating a pall of silence, with Mavis Staples filling the void, instantly taking command of the song with that soulful and earthy voice before Mahalia Jackson takes over for the next verse, setting a moral tone of power and conviction, eventually releasing it back to Mavis, who describes this as the biggest honor of her entire life, Mahalia Jackson in 1969 Summer of Soul - Take My Hand Precious Lord ft. Mavis Staples YouTube (1:45).  A conglomerate of musical styles are heard, artists that crossed genres, like Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaría performing “Watermelon Man,” Puerto Rican percussionist Ray Barretto performing “Abidjan” and “Together,” the innovative jazz of Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, or Hugh Masekela singing an adaptation of a traditional African folk song built around almost Brazilian percussion before launching into “Grazing in the Grass.”  This is the prelude to the incomparable Nina Simone, the High Priestess of Soul, who immediately sets the standard by acknowledging “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”  Channeling black anger into a defiant song of protest, she opens with “Backlash Blues,” a scathing protest poem by Langston Hughes that Simone set to music, ferociously pounding on the keyboard, unleashing the indignation and fury of being treated like a second class citizen, before singing what became a black anthem, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” finally reading a fiery musical recitation of an inspirational poem of black unity by David Nelson of the Last Poets.  The Bay area’s Sly and the Family Stone literally blew some minds, with his brother Freddie on guitar and sister Rose on piano in her white mini-dress and white wig dancing and singing backup, a predecessor to the multiracial and genre-bending Prince, as they had a white drummer and white saxophonist, something many had never seen before, with a knockout female trumpet player, Cynthia Robinson, performing the fist-in-the-air song “I Want to Take you Higher,” exactly as it would be done at Woodstock weeks later, unleashing a frenzied energy of unabashed freedom, literally dancing up a storm onstage, instantly elevating the excitement level to a fever pitch, while earlier they performed “Everyday People,” generating the largely ignored plea for peace and equality between differing races and social groups, including the global refrain, “We got to live together.”  Largely forgotten but deeply humanizing, the experience speaks for itself, as the event lays the groundwork for the formation of a new black identity.           


In the months that followed, a series of setbacks occurred with the Black Power Movement in America, as that same summer Stokely Carmichael fled to Africa to escape harassment and potential arrest by the FBI.  Just prior to the festival, 21 New York Black Panthers had been arrested and charged with planning a bombing campaign across the city to coincide with the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death.  All were eventually acquitted.  Later in December, Chicago Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clark were assassinated by the FBI in cold blood in a pre-dawn raid, with no one from law enforcement ever held accountable.  A year later, Angela Davis was arrested on gun charges used in the murder of a judge, also acquitted after a lengthy trial, splintering the movement, as the Black Panther Party and other black liberation activists were constantly harassed and deeply infiltrated by FBI informants, leading to a barrage of arrests, while at the same time they were vilified by the mainstream press, losing public support, causing infighting and violence while running out of money, bogged down in legal fees from the multitude of arrests of its members, becoming ever more isolated, losing public relevance, as membership continued to dwindle over the next decade.  Less than a year after her appearance in Harlem, Nina Simone left the United States, going first to Barbados, and then to Liberia, returning only sporadically to perform over the next several decades, becoming more reclusive in the years that followed. Essentially, the revolution that so many anticipated, simply never happened, suppressed by a significantly increased police presence in America, killing or incarcerating the most outspoken radicals, causing the rest to flee the country or go underground, resurfacing decades later, typically making plea agreement deals with the government.  By 1983, America signed into law a national holiday honoring Rev. Martin Luther King, observed for the first time in 1986. 

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