Back in the summer of 1969, it wasn’t just the US music festival Woodstock that was making waves on the festival circuit. Just a few hundred miles away in Harlem, the Harlem Cultural Festival took place at Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park). Due to the racism from White America, its existence has tried to have been erased from the music history books until now. Thanks to Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, frontman for the hip hop band The Roots, DJ now turned filmmaker, this powerful and transporting documentary—part music film, part historical record- gives its audience just a glimpse into the epic event that celebrated Black history, culture and fashion.
The festival, which was filmed over the course of six weeks, is encapsulated within the documentary by footage that has never been seen and largely forgotten, shining a light on the importance of history to our spiritual well-being and stands as a testament to the healing power of music during times of unrest, both past and present. Featuring never-before-seen concert performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension and more it’s a pure feast for any soul music aficionado.
During a press conference to celebrate the documentary’s release, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson gave us his insight into the making of this culturally important film.
Considering this festival had all but been erased from the history books, Ahmir Thompson had been made aware of it some 23 years ago but not while on home soil, It was all due to touring in Tokyo when he first got to witness any sort of footage.
“I first inadvertently show the footage back when The Roots first went to Tokyo in 1997, my translator for that tour knew I was a soul fan took me to a place called the Soul Train cafe. Unbeknownst to me, I was watching 2 minutes of Sly and the Family Stone performance but because it was what I knew to be camera 2, which was like the birdseye view, nosebleed section, I didn’t know I was watching the Harlem Cultural Festival. I just assumed that all festivals in the 60s’ were from Europe because America really didn’t have that culture yet. Only to find out exactly 20 years later, when [producers] David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent told me that they had this footage and they wanted me to direct the film. Even then, I didn’t believe it was real.”
Despite the footage being 50 years old, the audio quality from the concert is in tip-top condition, anyone would assume there were hours spent in the editing suite tweaking the levels. This couldn’t be further from the truth, Thompson, to this day, is still so amazed at the quality of sound the footage came with.
“There are 2 million-dollar questions of this film that are still unanswered, 1 is as hard as I tried I could not get any direct connection to Tony Lawrence, I don’t know if he is alive or dead, there is nothing of his legacy. The only paper trail I have of him are of the people that we found. The other thing was how could that audio be so pristine? The audio that you hear in the movie, this is not to discredit our wonderful sound team, especially Jimmy Douglas who, to me is the only engineer I have ever used on my albums which I never had to micromanage, I just send him the stuff, he knows what to do, he sends it back to me and I have no complaints. We had to do maybe 2% adjustment on the audio; the audio that you hear with the music is the draw rough mix, the soundboard, the reference mix. It sounded perfect for the life of my I can’t figure out how 12 microphones were utilized in a way so powerful.”
Thanks to spending most of his life as a musician and DJ, Thompson knew just how he would go about putting the documentary together, and his DJ skills gave him just the right approach in tackling such a historic piece of Black culture.
“Me being a DJ is exactly what informed me on how to tell this story… So I will say that there is a point where I was wondering could I take the same approach that I take to DJ’ing or putting a show together with this movie and that’s exactly what I did. For starters, for five months I just kept it on a 24-hour loop no matter where I was in the house or in the world. If anything gave me goosebumps then I took a note of it and I felt like if there were at least 30 things that gave me goosebumps we could have a foundation.”
The erasure of Black history is not only prevalent in America, it is a worldwide concern, so to be finally able to have these conversations and paths opening up to shedding light on all aspects of the culture are worth having. Thompson has revealed that there are still many more stories to tell from his daily interactions with the fans alone.
“This is a step forward; this is the first time that I’m really seeing conversations that were never had before, especially post-pandemic. We weren’t talking about mental health within Black people; we really weren’t speaking of Black Erasure. Previously, years before, we coded it as cultural appropriation which was a politically correct way of saying like in the 80s “why you always biting my shit”, it was also sort of draped in slang so that you couldn’t see the heart or the sincerity of what the problem was. Be it TikTok content or be it a festival, I know its one thing; this isn’t the only story out there. Probably the most shocking thing I have learned in the last month, I’ve gotten DMs from professors in universities letting me know that blah blah blah shot concert footage for 20 hours for something that they did. This isn’t the only footage that’s laying around unscathed, there are about 6-7 others, perhaps this film can be an entry, a sea change for these stories to finally get out and for us to acknowledge, that something as minuscule as content on social media or one of the first-ever black festivals is important to our history.”
The documentary will be released in cinemas across the UK and Ireland on 16th July, and exclusively on Star on Disney+ on 30th July.