Last year when I committed to shows, they were things to keep me company. And this year, things are watched (if at all) as back-end noise between dishes and light work. I’ve always wrestled with the idea that we need to pay attention to something 100% of the time to actually understand it.
Mayor John Lindsay escorted by some members of the Black Panther Party, who were security for the event.
Donal F. Holway/The New York Times
When it comes to Summer Of Soul, the internal argument was driven a bit deeper. From my kitchen I could hear the music and the crowds. I’d pause between things and look at Nina Simone’s wonderful hair, the power of Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson singing together. I fell into a post-movie rabbit hole about Mayor John Lindsay’s tenure as New York City’s mayor, and of course, the early aughts of sponsorship, with Maxwell House.
Did I need to keep my eyes on every bit to understand? No. But through the speakers in my computer, I certainly could feel every inch of it. For nearly two hours—no matter what I was doing with my hands, I was in Harlem during the summer of ’69.
When putting the powerful performance of Mavis Staples (who was peppered through the documentary in present looking back on the performance) and Mahalia Jackson into words, Wesley Morris shares this, “They’re singing for the festival’s attendees. They’re mourning all of the death — of leaders, of followers, of troops and civilians. They are, if you’re willing to see it this way, lamenting what is obviously a generational transition from one phase of Black political expression to another, from resolve to anger, from the grandiloquence of Jackson’s pile of hair to Staples’s blunter Afro. They are singing this cherished classic of bereavement in order to mourn the present and the past. Listening to them now, in the summer of 2021, plumb earth and scrape sky, you weep, not only for the raw beauty of their voices but because it feels as if these two instruments of God were also mourning the future.”
The documentary is presented to us by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who found it primary as a tender and mighty spot to fill the cultural void of seasons past, and likely this summer that we currently embark on. Especially after the protests around the country and the world for Black Lives last summer. The concert took place six Sundays of that summer at Mount Morris Park (now, Marcus Garvey Park). For 50 years the footage sat in the basement of Hal Tulchin. Although it was digitized by Joe Lauro before Tulchin’s death, Quest and the documentary’s producers used the original film footage for this documentary. And to everyone’s surprise, the footage and the sound were in meticulous condition.
What happens to generations of people and their stories if they are nearly, erased?
This is the question I’ve been thinking about since watching the film. All of the performers went on to be superstars, activists, and pivotal anchors of that time and this time we are in now. Nina Simone’s tunes croon on my record player for my children, long after her passing. “At the end of the day, the sole purpose of this festival was to protect property. There was a riot in ’68 in Harlem when King died. And there was fear in the city that it would happen again in 1969, so there was a sense that the festival would keep Black people calm all summer. And once it served its purpose, that was it.” says Questlove when it comes to keeping the context of the festival in view for us.
Musa Jackson, who was only five when he attended The Summer Of Soul, captivated me in the film. Despite being so young, you could see how rewatching clips sparked his memory. A small smile travels to an eruption of tears. “I knew I wasn’t crazy, brother,” Musa Jackson says to Questlove “I knew I was not crazy. But now I know I’m not. And this is just confirmation. How beautiful it was.”
Have you watched it? If you haven’t, may I suggest that you do!
More May I Suggest right this way.
All photos other than what’s noted are Courtesy Of Searchlight Pictures