Review by Laurie Phuong Ertley
Summer of Soul (Searchlight pictures, 2021) is a riveting documentary about Black joy, Black power, and Black music. You might wonder how something so massive as a music festival headlined by the likes of BB King, Stevie Wonder, and Nina Simone could ever be kept a secret. The footage includes some of the most passionate performances ever seen by Mahalia Jackson, David Ruffin, and Sly and the Family Stone. Director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson took on the monumental task of editing down 40 hours of footage by Hal Turchin into a 117-minute long movie. What’s left is a tight, impactful time capsule of 1969. Prior to his work, the film reels had been left to languish in a basement, unused after the major television networks at the time had refused to air them.
As stirring as the musical performances were, interviews of the performers and news footage that were peppered throughout the documentary let you know that it was more than just a concert. 1969 left Americans reeling from the consecutive assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy. There was an air of tiredness, anger, even revolution. A young Nina Simone strongly asked the crowds, “Are you ready to do what it takes [to be free]?” Then in 1969, as it is now in 2022, the United States of America is a country beset by laws that are meant to suppress Black people from learning, voting, and moving freely. This documentary made obvious to the viewer why these tapes have been so long ignored. But the time has come, and through the efforts of Questlove, the footage has surfaced. And it’s up to all of us to ask ourselves, are we ready to do what it takes to live in a country that can truly allow Black people to be free?