Do you remember it? a voice out of shot asks Musa Jackson, whose eyes are transfixed to the left of the camera. You can hear he is watching an event on a screen.
You can tell by the look on Jackson’s face: Oh, hell yes, he remembers.
In this short opening sequence of the Questlove-directed Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), we the audience yearn to know what he remembers and what is so captivating to be holding Jackson’s attention to completely yet tenderly.
We move slowly to text, through which we learn about the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, the so-called ‘black Woodstock’.
We learn that the event was filmed and the footage lay in a basement for 50 years never to be seen. Until now.
The opening is a masterpiece of image and text working in synchrony to:
- Make us yearn to learn more
- To feel what it is to have memory confirmed
- To set up the subject of the documentary
- To tease with the sounds and footage that will come
- Make us feel special to be partaking in all that will unfold
Music and festival footage then dances with interviews to go from the microscopic – the experiences of Jackson and others whop were there at the festival – to the macroscopic, placing the event in its socio-political context.
This in-out-in-out-in-out beats throughout the film like a drum.
The festival is the prism through which something of the Black experience of life in the US of the 1960s.
“We want a new world.”
Then back to the experience of being at the festival.
Then wide once again to the context of assassinations of Martin Luther King, the Kennedys and Malcolm X.
Of the disproportionately high number of Black deaths in Vietnam.
Of how the climate of anger was splitting the black community between those who advocated non violence and those who felt injustice could only be ended through direct action.
A voice tells us the festival was possibly held to stop people torching New York.
The festival then was both a festival and so, so much more.
We learn the Moon landing happened during the festival. A series of interviews with white people talking about the importance of putting a man on the moon.
Back to the festival. Those there care more about the festival.
We sense the perversity of expenditure on sending a rocket to the moon while the poor of the US cannot eat.
But the beauty in this production is not didactic. It is sweeps effortlessly through its two hours on a tide of unbelievably fine music, of Young Black Talent, as Nina Simone phrases it in an address to the hundreds of thousands present.
And then… despair. This incredible event is forgotten. The rushes could not be sold. Black history buried…again.
We finish where we started, in loop, with Musa Jackson.
It did happen.
“And it was beautiful,” he says.
Searchlight Pictures. (n.d.). Summer of Soul. [online] Available at: https://www.searchlightpictures.com/summerofsoul/ [Accessed 17 Aug. 2021].