Nobody’s been waiting longer for this year’s debut of Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) than me. Well, with the obvious exception of the late TV director Hal Tulchin, who originally shot the footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival in the summer of 1969. When first told of the Marcus Garvey Park concerts—starring Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and other musical icons—first-time director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson literally didn’t believe it. The event had long been a victim of Black erasure and, like most people, he’d never even heard it happened. But I’d known about the shows for decades. My father, Darryl Lewis, appears as a commentator in the film because he’d attended the festival as a teenager.
“I used to live at 555 Edgecombe Avenue,” he says, “a former Harlem residence of Paul Robeson and many others. One of the residents informed me that Quest was looking for people who attended any of the concerts, and she thought of me.” Since his on-screen interview for the documentary two years ago, we’ve both been restlessly waiting for the finished product. “There’s 40 hours of never-seen film of so many performers that were just reaching their prime. I signed on to the project hoping it would open up the footage for me. The world should see it.”
Now the world has. The Sundance Film Festival awarded the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award to Summer of Soul last January. Questlove’s directorial debut phenomenally frames the original footage in the context of the late ’60s—when Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedys’ deaths marked social upheaval, Afros signified cultural pride, and a man walked on the moon to the collective shrug of the Black community. Screening on Hulu and 600 theaters nationwide (a widespread release that’s rare for documentaries) at the time of release last July, Summer of Soul has been bringing people to tears with gospel great Mahalia Jackson’s performance of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” Nina Simone’s unapologetically Black revolutionary sermonizing and more.
Summer of Soul is as much a slam-dunk triumph as the festival it celebrates, which predated 1969’s wildly touted Woodstock rock concert by two months. “I enjoy the ebb and flow of a performance,” says my father, a huge fan back then of Sly & the Family Stone and The Temptations, whose lanky, bespectacled lead singer David Ruffin performs in the film. “I understand time constraints, but there was no opportunity to see a full performance [in the movie]. Sly was the closest. Some powerful performers couldn’t be highlighted. Chuck Jackson is a great performer, though he’s not well-known anymore. But I feel like they captured the highlights.”
Back in 2006, I included some of my dad’s musical reflections in There’s a Riot Goin’ On, my book on Sly & The Family Stone. Dad once attended a famous Jimi Hendrix concert on New Year’s Eve 1970, later released as the Band of Gypsys album. A young man in his 20s throughout the 1970s, Dad’s a walking Wikipedia of first-person, eyewitness info about live performances by everyone from James Brown and Miles Davis to Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin. Since my childhood, he’s been sharing with me the same kind of African-American pop-culture gems he drops in Summer of Soul. Seeing him in the film alongside talking heads like the Reverend Al Sharpton, Chris Rock, Sheila E, Lin-Manuel Miranda and others makes me proud.
“My group of [friends], we were suit-and-tie guys,” Dad says in the film. “Then we saw Sly. And we were no longer suit-and-tie guys.” The audience surrounding us at a screening for Summer of Soul at its original Marcus Garvey Park location laughed on cue. Me, I laughed because I’d heard his joke before. “Man your dad is my friggin HERO,” Questlove tweeted to me back in January. That makes two of us.
Miles Marshall Lewis (@MMLunlimited) is the author of Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power and Poetry of Kendrick Lamar.