In the minds of most 1969 African Americans,, the Harlem Cultural Festival was an event that would leave an indelible mark on the legacy of New York City. For two months, songs from the likes of Nina Simone, The 5th Dimension and Mavis Staples would pour out of Mount Morris Park in Haarlem and flood into surrounding cars, streets and homes. Then it was forgotten. For over 50 years the only surviving reels of film had slept in a nondescript filing cabinet before a team from Searchlight Pictures would rouse and revive the forgotten festival footage in the 2021 Oscar winning documentary, Summer of Soul.
In and amongst the expansive production team was Bryan Greene. On the evening of July 23rd, Greene gave a Summer of Soul viewing to a gymnasium filled with ecstatic National History Academy (NHA) students. As soon as the film started, there were no questions as to why the film would receive commendation after commendation, not only at the Oscars, but also at both the Academy and the BAFTA awards, amongst a plethora of nominations elsewhere. Students were in awe all the way through the film’s two hour run-time thanks to its unique narrative format which informatively combines the festival’s biggest musical displays with exposition regarding the social and political contexts at the time. Given that Greene was the Consultant Producer, I ended up in a discussing with him how reworking a more conventional documentary-style format could conceive a compelling film. The first thing I felt compelled to ask Greene was how he felt the film would impact society today. Afterall, despite the Harlem Culture Festival nearly fading into oblivion, it certainly reshaped American culture, especially Black culture for the better. For example, Summer of Soul highlighted how the festival created a culture of defiance after the nation was nearing the end of the tumultuous 60’s. In the earlier half of the decade, most African Americans would have been looking optimistically towards the future as the 1964 Civil Rights Act took force, stopping race-based discrimination. However, this was only true on paper as decades of institutionalised racism would suddenly ricochet through the hearts of Black Americans nationwide when Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4th, 1968 followed by Robert F. Kennedy less than two months later on June 6th. The documentary therefore argued that the Harlem community countered these events through the power of song, given that one of the most evocative scenes was Nina Simone’s rendition of Are You Ready which advocated for an African American community not afraid to demand justice after the events of the past few years. Today in the United States, we are also looking towards a turbulent future, with institutionalised racism continuing in the police force. As a result, Greene stated that he would like to see his film have two main effects on the extremely volatile political climate today.
Firstly, “Soul of Summer is to educate people”. Whilst it may seem obvious to most of the country that we live in a system which in many ways is broken, Greene explains that a large proportion of the population “still remains oblivious to the dangers that lie ahead” if we do not amend the scars which this nation has already obtained. This is relevant to the Festival as it was designed to be a way to heal the historical wounds which had been allowed to fester in America for much longer than what was acceptable. This resonated with me because we see the seeds of division sewn constantly throughout the past, with no example being as poignant as with the scene of protests after the moon landing. I spoke to Greene about the curious decision to juxtapose the positive reactions outside Harlem, mostly from white citizens and the protests inside Harlems. We both agreed that it was likely due to what the African American community felt was a misconstruing of funds away from the American people in need to fund a vanity project on the international stage. Naturally, this reminded me of Bill Stout’s infamous warning that “what shall it avail an nation if we can place a man on the moon but cannot cure the sickness in our cities”
Secondly, Greene also explained that whilst the film’s impact was mostly down to educating people, there was also an extremely reflective element present. He stated that this “reflective element is crucial because it allows us to see how far we’ve come”. Whilst admittedly our current society is far from perfect, Greene has a valid point. In the documentary we can certainly see the differences between America in 1969 and 2017 through the interviews with many of the festival’s attendees and performers nearly 50 years apart. One interview that was of particular significance, was with the band The 5th Dimension who spoke of how back then they were considered either “too white” or “too black” as people were less accepting of nuances. This compares quite starkly with today where we as a society attempt to perceive diversity and cultural breadths as positive influences. Whilst the interviews were stellar, Greene admitted that they were the one of the more challenging parts to film. This was because when the production team at Searchlight Pictures first started working on Summer of Soul, they “no idea which people attended the event physically”. Thus, Greene would play a pivotal role in attempting to find people who were there. One of the most interesting ways he searched for Festival goers was “through the power of the internet”. Greene recalled that he spent much of his time contacting people mainly through Facebook and Youtube, both of which he referred to as his “Rosetta Stones” as they were how he found out about the Festival in the first place. It goes to show that the internet, once derided by organisations as “being a fad” has quickly become one of the easiest and most practical ways to unearth lost history. In fact, Greene teased that Summer of Soul was only “the tip of the iceberg” and that his team will be working on much more that is yet to come. .