In 1969, the same year that Woodstock took place, crowds gathered in Harlem for another landmark festival featuring greats like Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson and a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder. But the festival — despite being scrupulously filmed by a producer named Hal Tulchin, who later tried to sell the footage as a television special — was ignored by mainstream media and receded from historical memory.
After networks declined to air Tulchin’s footage, it sat in his basement for 50 years, largely unseen.
“I think he was a little bit naïve. He did it on spec, and I think he thought that one of the three networks was going to be interested. And I think there’s no other way to look at it than to say that the networks were afraid of a show that was all Black artists,” said Robert Fyvolent, one of the producers of a new documentary based on Tulchin’s footage, “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).”
“In hindsight, it’s a little bit surprising that nobody took Hal’s footage and made something of it before now. But I think all of us who have grown up in American society understand the underlying reasons why that was the case,” said Joseph Patel, who produced the film along with Fyvolent and David Dinerstein.
The film, the directorial debut of musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, is both a concert film and a sharp portrait of 1969 Harlem, nodding to the social and economic backdrop against which the festival took place, over six consecutive Sundays in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park).
Fyvolent and Patel spoke with “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio about the barriers they faced in making the film and why it was important to represent the festival in the context of its cultural moment. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.
An unlikely path to the big screen
David Brancaccio: The film zooms in on the idea of Black erasure — when the contributions of people of color don’t show up in history. But help me with the mechanics of this. There was an original producer with TV experience named Hal [Tulchin] who arranged to shoot video at these concerts?
Robert Fyvolent: Yeah, I had a relationship with Hal over the years. I got involved with this project in, I think 2006, and I met with Hal and got his story. Hal had heard about the event and was smart enough to recognize that these were important artists, and contacted the festival and got permission to basically record it with the hope of putting the footage together to sell as some sort of TV special or program in 1969.
Brancaccio: How in the world did that stay pretty much hidden for so many years?
Fyvolent: The pipeline was narrow in 1969. I think he was a little bit naïve. He did it on spec, and I think he thought that one of the three networks was going to be interested. And I think there’s no other way to look at it than to say that the networks were afraid of a show that was all Black artists.
Joseph Patel: Yeah, I think it’s not just individual artists like Nina Simone or Sonny Sharrock. I think it’s the totality; an entire show with all Black artists probably left some networks a little afraid in 1969. I think the thing that’s really shocking to me is that, 10 years later, Hal tried to revive this footage and sell it again, and nobody bit then. At that point, Stevie Wonder has become the genius Stevie Wonder, and Nina Simone’s stature only grows with time. In hindsight, it’s a little bit surprising that nobody took Hal’s footage and made something of it before now. But I think all of us who have grown up in American society understand the underlying reasons why that was the case.
Questlove joins the project
Brancaccio: So you approach Questlove. He hadn’t really heard of the Harlem Music Festival?
Fyvolent: Yeah. He was curious enough to want to meet with us and I started telling him about it. And, you know, it’s an incredulous thing when you tell somebody, “We have Stevie Wonder at 19. We have Mavis [Staples] singing with Mahalia Jackson. We have Gladys Knight.” And his jaw was open, and I whipped out my laptop and said, “Here, take a look,” and showed him some footage. And I could see the light in his eyes and the enthusiasm, like anybody that sees that for the first time. We were off to the races at that point.
Brancaccio: Many people will be embarrassed that they didn’t know about this cultural phenomenon. But if Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson hadn’t heard about it, I guess it hadn’t really resounded within the wider culture.
Fyvolent: I think he was very self-deprecating about it, and sort of laughing that, “How did I not know about this? I’m a preeminent musicologist. These are artists that I love.” And that’s the beauty of this film: nobody has seen this. It’s literally putting this [festival] back into the lexicon; into our history and consciousness.
Patel: One of the things we tap into in the film is that the people who did remember it are the people who went, and that was the first thing on our list — to try to find people who actually attended the festival. And we played back footage to them after our interviews, and you see the pure emotion and joy and flood back of memories in their eyes. And that was something that we knew, pretty early on, that we wanted to tap into.
Brancaccio: Joseph Patel, how did you come on board?
Patel: Once Robert and David had procured Questlove as the director, everyone wanted a creative producer that could work with Ahmir to help bring the story to life. And I go back 25 years with Ahmir, so when he was tapped as director, they approached me. I actually originally said no, because Ahmir is a busy guy and I was a little suspect that he would have the time to commit to a project of this magnitude. And he convinced me otherwise — which I’m thankful he did. He told me how important this story was to him, and he honed in on this idea that, had this festival and Hal’s footage come to light as originally intended, the kind of impact it would have made on him as a youngster, and other people like him in that generation. Instead of remembering Woodstock, what if we remembered the Harlem Cultural Festival? And it resonated with me — what he was saying and how much this story meant to him.
Contextualizing the festival: “It is an extraordinary year in American history”
Brancaccio: This is one of the greatest concert films maybe anyone will ever see. But it’s not just a concert film. The team that put this together went out of its way to contextualize what what was going on.
Patel: Yeah, once we got Hal’s footage we had to piece everything together, because there were no thorough articles written about this festival. So we had to figure out who performed, in what order, on what days. And we started to make a map of what else was happening at the time — not only in Harlem, but in New York and in the rest of America. And you start to look at the timeline in 1969 and the motivations for why this festival was put together, and it’s just an incredibly dynamic year, especially socially: a year after Martin Luther King dies; a year after Bobby Kennedy dies; you’ve got man landing on the moon; you’ve got Nixon in the White House. It is an extraordinary year in American history. And we felt that the performances onstage in Harlem for that audience — it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s happening amidst all this other stuff. And the only way to appreciate what’s happening on stage is to contextualize it with what’s happening offstage. Our genius editor, Josh Pearson, came up with the idea of figuring out, how do we tuck in some of the story into the performances so that you’re sort of going back and forth? And Ahmir, drawing inspiration from music, was like, “I want this movie to feel like the way Public Enemy’s albums were produced.” It’s a very pastiche, montage style; a very rhythmic quality to the editing. That was a eureka moment for us in the edit.
Views on the 1969 moon landing
Brancaccio: I mean, everything’s going on at the same time. It’s the same summer, as we say, of Woodstock. But also the Apollo 11 landing happens at the same time, essentially, as one of the six concerts that make up the Harlem festival. And you have a clip, I think from CBS, in which you get a very different take on the achievement of the lunar landing.
Bill Plante: What are your thoughts [on the lunar landing]?
Festival attendee: As far as science goes, and everybody that’s involved with the moon landing and astronauts, it’s beautiful. Me? I couldn’t care less.
Plante: This [festival] means more to you than that.
Festival attendee: Yeah, much more. The cash they wasted, as far as I’m concerned, in getting to the moon, could have been used to feed poor Black people in Harlem and all over the place, all over this country. Never mind the moon — let’s get some of that cash in Harlem.
Brancaccio: Well, you see that when culture erases that moment, it erases that important point of view.
Fyvolent: Absolutely. One of the most amazing things that happened while we were making this movie was that the footage is, as advertised, footage that hasn’t been seen in over 50 years — but in researching it, we found footage that wasn’t part of what was in the Hal Tulchin stash, which was Walter Cronkite cutting to a reporter at the Harlem Cultural Festival. And to be able to make the connection between our footage and that perspective of what America saw, even then, was pretty striking.
Patel: And the erasure extends — that clip that we include in the movie of Walter Cronkite throwing to Bill Plante at the Harlem Cultural Festival — that clip was never aired, I think, beyond New York City. And we had to dig in the archives and get that cleared to use. I’m thankful that CBS’s news archives let us use it, but it does show that that perspective was sort of hidden from plain view.
“Black” gathers momentum: “You’re seeing this reclaiming of the term”
Brancaccio: The film makes this point, that the summer of 1969 is this turning point for, really, the brand of Blackness.
Reverend Al Sharpton: 1969 was the pivotal year where “the Negro” died and “Black” was born.
Brancaccio: So when you see the performances and what the performers are saying and how the entire festival is put together; what people are wearing — “Black” as a term, which we now capitalize, by then has arrived.
Patel: Yeah. One of the people we spoke to was Charlayne Hunter-Gault who, at the time in 1969, is sort of the unofficial Harlem bureau chief for the New York Times. And she tells the story that we include in the film that she filed a story that year, in 1969, where she changed the word “Negro” to “Black,” and her editor reversed her change. And she got very upset and sent an 11-page memo to Abe Rosenthal, the editor of the New York Times, explaining why using the term “Black” was important. And I think what you’re seeing in 1969, especially in Harlem, which was sort of the Black capital of America at the time — you’re seeing this change happening on the ground with people living in Harlem saying, “We don’t want to be referred to as Negro anymore, we want to be referred to as Black.” You’re seeing this reclaiming of the term. And that’s informing not only the audience at the festival, but also the musicians on stage. There’s this symbiotic call and response happening. And hopefully we were able to capture that in the film.
Brancaccio: And the original producer, Hal Tulchin, he passed away a couple years ago. He didn’t get to see all this come together.
Fyvolent: I know. I had talked to him for many years, and he was very supportive of this version of the project. And, as his surviving widow has told us, Hal was a tough guy to please. But she said he would have loved this movie. So I feel good that we were able to honor his legacy in that way.