Review by Frances Winston
Directed by: Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson – Starring: The artists and attendees of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival
In cinemas now!
In 1969, the Harlem Cultural Festival was held at Mount Morris Park in Harlem, and lasted for six weeks. It featured a multitude of well-known artists, and forty hours of footage were recorded of performances from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, The 5th Dimension, The Staple Singers, Gladys Knight & The Pips, and Sly and the Family Stone. And then that footage sat in a basement for 50 years.
As difficult as it might be to believe in the current pop-culture landscape, where literally everything is documented, this footage was not considered important. It was considered obscure pop culture – something that the thousands of attendees (some of whom contribute here) would surely disagree with.
The footage has been thoughtfully curated and directed here, with interviews with performers and attendees interspersed with performance footage which is truly electric. Even half a century later, and through the screen, you can feel the electricity of this event. This is confirmed by those who attended. This was a seismic moment, but it was dismissed by the powers that be, and it is wonderful that this footage is finally getting to see the light of day.
It is hard to comprehend today what a big deal this festival was, and how empowering it was for the community. With wonderful music and performances, and funny and engaging interviews, this is a wonderful nostalgia-fest, with a nice side of social commentary. The fact that the videotapes survived is a miracle, and it is amazing that these incredible live performances are not lost to history, but rather can be appreciated by all. It completely captures the spirit of the era, yet is surprisingly relatable to contemporary times.
Striking and powerful, this is a poignant, yet feel-good film, that will have you singing along to the soundtrack.