Exploring Digital Purgatory: Summer of Soul

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The Movie or TV Show: Summer of Soul…or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised (2021)

 One Sentence Premise Summary: A piece of American history is restored and an unheralded concert event from 1969 gets its just due.

Where You Can Stream It: Hulu (As of July 8, 2021)

Why I Streamed It: As mentioned, this is an important piece of history. Woodstock and the moon landing are undoubtedly worth discussing, but for an event like this to almost be lost is ridiculous (although not unsurprising given the way Black history is treated in this country).

Why You Should Stream it:

A fun fact about me is I’m not really a music person, which shocks nearly everyone that I come in contact with because it’s a weird character trait. I point this out because as a concert film, I had many reasons to not appreciate what Questlove and the rest of the crew were trying to do. While not a musically inclined person, I am a huge fan of history and trying to understand this country more. Summer of Soul succeeds both as a concert and examining a piece of forgotten history.

In just two hours, Questlove allows us to see what made the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival such an important part of that summer. Coming just a year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., this was a chance to bring Black joy at a time when it was needed. You know it’s a very different time because the white Republican mayor of New York is invited to the festival and isn’t booed. He’s even welcomed. I seriously cannot imagine a current serving politician being able to go to any musical festival and get this positive a reaction.

Admittedly, it’s hard to discuss to analyze the musical elements. What did come across is a balance between the narrative being told and the actual footage of the performances. Somehow Questlove manages to craft a narrative in two hours that does the festival justice, but I never found myself feeling the documentary was ever out of balance.

Could there have been a 10 hour version of this film, one that gets into the specific of the political dynamics or fully explains the reactions of festivalgoers to the moon landing (which is really interesting and a very different version of history than is typically presented because legitimate questions about whether this trip should have ever been financed given the situation on the ground). I think this is an incredible watch because of the Black joy that is seen. There has been a lot of discussion about the way companies have exploited trauma in certain projects recently. Thankfully, this documentary will not be a part of those conversations. The restoration is at a high level, and it’s only unfortunate we couldn’t get a widescreen version of festival.

Quite honestly, I walked into this film a bit skeptical, but this is one of the very best things I’ve watched in 2021. I hope this gets award consideration. I would argue that this is an important piece of our history that should be acknowledged and discussed more. Hopefully, there is a way to release even more of the concert footage for people to be able to see because after being on a shelf (literally) for over 50 years, there is every reason to relive these moments. I would imagine for people who have not been able to attend concerts the last 18 months can scratch that itch by seeing this. This gets one of my highest recommendations, and I will probably bring this up again when I make a best of the year list.

Best Performance: A documentary does not have necessarily have performances in the same way as a narrative film, but it’s worth pointing out the way the film builds up to Nina Simone’s performance is something special. You can see her charisma and ability as a singer. Even among a pantheon of great artists, she stuck out. As mentioned earlier, Questlove really puts the emphasis on the concert yet somehow creates a narrative and mixes those two things well.

Best Quote: As far as I could see, it was just Black people. This was the first time I had seen so many of us … It was the ultimate Black barbecue. -Musa Jackson

 Final Grade: A

Coming next week, Evil! 

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