The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Summer of Soul

Sep 26, 2022

Summer of Soul (Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is a 2021 documentary film about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. The film was released last year on streaming services, and has played at a limited number of theaters this year.

The film chronicles the Harlem Cultural Festival, a free music festival, which took place over 6 Saturdays from June to August, 1969, at Mount Morris Park (now called Marcus Garvey Park) in Harlem, New York City.

Most people never heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival after it happened, despite being well attended with upwards of 50,000 each Saturday. The estimated total attendance over the 6 days was 300,000 people. This was almost as many people as attended the much more famous Woodstock Music Festival which was going on at the same time in another part of New York State. The Harlem Festival highlighted African American music and culture.

The film footage of the festival was put aside and never seen again until recently, when this new movie was put together. Whereas Woodstock was known around the world and talked about to this day, the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival was completely buried. Almost no one alive today had heard about it, until the movie came out.

The film showed the performers, such as a young (19 years old) Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Gladys Knight, Sly and the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson, the Staple Singers, among others. The festival was much more than music, though. It reflects the political and cultural feelings of the time period, with all their merits and their limits.

It takes place toward the end of a period of great political struggle, particularly by the black population in this country. Black people had participated not only in the “nonviolent” Civil Rights Movement, but gone beyond that to carry out urban insurrections in hundreds of cities across the country. Their fights gave birth to other movements like the student anti-Vietnam War movement and the women’s movement. The black population had also experienced assassinations of leaders like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and members of the Black Panthers, not to mention the imprisonment of many others.

The film reflects the feeling of cultural pride encouraged by the black nationalism popular at the time and felt by the nearly completely black audience in Harlem. It also devotes a good deal of time to religious feelings and gospel music through the performances of the Staples Singers and Mahalia Jackson and a speech by Reverend Jesse Jackson. While these religious expressions show some of the limits of the movement, the gospel performances also reflect the pain, sorrow and joys of the experiences of black people in this country. They also give a glimpse into the inspiration gospel music provided for other forms of popular music, including that of the other performers in the film.

Notable among performers was the singer, song-writer, and social activist, Nina Simone. Her very moving performance includes her recitation of a poem by the Last Poets, called Are You Ready, Black People? which raises some uncomfortable questions like, "Are you ready to smash white things? To burn buildings? Are you ready?"

The film also includes interviews, today and from 1969, from people who attended, including their views on what was going on in their community and around the world. For example, another famous event was going on right at this time—the first walk on the moon. People in the crowd at the Harlem Cultural Festival were interviewed about this. The comments were clear, comparing the poverty in Harlem with the amount of money spent to walk on the moon. People in Harlem were clearly aware of the contradiction.

Nonetheless, it should also be noted, the movement reflected in the film was nearing its end and would eventually reach its limits. While the black movement won some gains, it stayed within the limits of this society, and many of those gains, though not all, eventually dissipated in the decades which followed.