The year 1969 “was the pivotal year that the Negro died and Black was born”, declares the maverick New York preacher-politician Al Sharpton in the middle of the effervescent wave of music that propels the Oscar-winning documentary Summer of Soul.
In New York’s Harlem neighbourhood, that transformation was evident everywhere: in Afro hairstyles, in African-inspired dashiki garments, in painting – and, most exuberantly, in the music.
That new music was put on stage that year in a series of free concerts called the Harlem Cultural Festival. The range of performers it featured is breathtaking: a young Stevie Wonder, the gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, funk stars Sly and the Family Stone, jazz diva Nina Simone and South African trumpet player Hugh Masakela among them.
Though the concerts were taped, they never found a buyer. Fifty years later, director Ahmir Khalib Thomson aka Questlove uses the tapes to tell the story of the music at the heart of the African-American pursuit of equal opportunity and the impression it left on its listeners.
Summer of Soul won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature on Sunday. Its competitors included the Indian film Writing With Fire, directed by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh and profiling the media organisation Khabar Lahariya.
The documentary poses an intriguing question: why was the Harlem Cultural Festival forgotten – even as another event with mostly White performers held at the same time a few hundred miles away came to be mythicised as a socio-political landmark?
Thanks to the dogged efforts of the producers, the world finally has the opportunity to groove to the Black Woodstock, to remember the songs that Sharpton said were sung “in a tone between hope and mourning” and celebrate the music that expressed a generation’s “pain and also its defiance”. The documentary is being streamed in India on Disney+ Hotstar.