Director: Questlove (USA). Year of Release: 2021
A clapperboard carrying the name “Black Woodstock” claps shut. Soon after, we are watching a 19-year old little Stevie Wonder rushing around a stage with a man carrying an umbrella rapidly following in his wake. A crowd of 50,000 people are warding off similarly inclement weather with umbrellas and, for some reason, sombreros. Stevie sits behind a drum kit and his solo is mitigated by footage of leading Black leaders and anti-racist demonstrations in the late 1960s.
In 1969, while the media’s eyes were on Woodstock, something more magnificent was happening in northern New York. For 6 consecutive Sundays, the Harlem Cultural festival in Mount Morris Park (since renamed Marcus Garvey Park) attracted a total of 300,000 people to one of the most impressive line ups that the world has ever seen. The free festival was filmed, but, as the opening credits tell us, “the footage sat in a basement for 50 years. It has never been seen.” Until now.
It was all funded on a shoestring – there was no lighting, so the stage had to face West. Eventually, some money was cobbled together following sponsorship by Maxwell House (cue advert for the festival which celebrates Maxwell House’s connections with Africa while neglecting to mention the slave trade), and liberal Republican New York mayor John Lindsay, who was rare among white politicians of the time in that he didn’t look uncomfortable when interacting with Black people.
This is much more than just a concert movie. Director ?uestlove – the drummer and main musical force behind the band The Roots, puts forward a persuasive argument that this was not just a phenomenal festival. It took place at a time when both Black music and politics were in a time of transition. The concerts embodied a move from a more complacent past into a militant and angry future.
Let’s start with the music. One of the film’s talking heads (mainly people who attended the festival as kids 50 years ago), notes that in the 1960s, Black music was expected to be a group of 4 to 5 men in suits with perfect harmonies and all the right dance moves. Then came Sly Stone with his “psychedelic R&B” (any other 2 random words would describe their music just as well) and suddenly the cards were newly shuffled and dealt.
It wasn’t just a case of soul vocal groups and Sly Stone. The wide variety of music is palpable. We see BB King playing Blues, the Edwin Hawkins Singers singing gospel (“Oh Happy Day”), the 5th Dimension playing their greatest hit (Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In – songs from Hair, which had their audience thinking they must be white), a newly post-Temptations David Ruffin singing My Girl, along with jazz musicians like Max Roach and Sonny Sharrock.
The music was also international, and challenged traditional ideas of political Blackness. There was music from Eastern Harlem – more commonly known as Spanish Harlem because of its significant Cuban and Puerto Rican population. And there was Hugh Masekela, newly arrived from South Africa, from which he’d been expelled for fighting Apartheid. The music, just like the underlying politics, was international.
On top of this, many artists spanned different genres. Mavis Staples explains that it took her a long time to realise that the Staples Singers’ gospel music was played while her father Pops was playing blues guitar. Whether or not the film is correct to argue that 1969 was a unique time for such cross-pollination in music, we are treated to a remarkable diversity of musical styles.
It is difficult to separate the range of musical options on offer from the political radicalism at the time. In 1969, the USA was increasingly bogged down by the Vietnam war, and rocked by a series of violent incidents. A neat montage of film footage shows Malcolm X commenting on John F Kennedy’s assassination, followed by Martin Luther King talking about Malcolm’s assassination then Robert Kennedy commenting on Martin’s.
The Kennedy deaths may not have troubled the Black community too much, but the political killings certainly increased the level of political tension, particularly among the victims of racism. One of the festival veterans, argues that “the goal of the festival may very well have been to keep Black folks from burning up the city in 1969”. This is not too fanciful, as a year earlier Harlem was one of the many largely Black areas which experienced riots in the wake of King’s assassination.
While the festival was happening, Neil Armstrong and a couple of his pals, landed on the moon. Following breathless interviews with white people, we see the responses of people interviewed at the festival. Most are respectful but point out the lack of media coverage of the festivals. Other answers could have come straight from Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon”, asking why so much money is being spent on the moon landing and not on the lives and education of Black kids.
There is one moving scene, when Jesse Jackson pops up to remember King’s last day. This is to be followed by a rendition of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”, the song King had requested for his mass just before he was assassinated. Mavis Staples recalls that the great Mahalia Jackson, who was due to sing the song, told her that she wasn’t feeling well, and asked her to help. Both women sing the song, and both are magnificent. We witness a baton being passed on.
The Reverend Al Sharpton and others reflect on the peculiarly radical nature of Black churches in the USA. Sharpton says “Gospel was more than religious. Gospel was the therapy for the stress and pressure of being Black in America. We didn’t go lay on the couch. We didn’t know anything about therapists. But we knew Mahalia Jackson.” He doesn’t quite say that Gospel is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of our soulless conditions, but you get the gist.
The political context of the film is the rising Black Power movement, expressed in different ways by Stevie Wonder (who also calls for voting registration) and Gladys Knight (who is less conciliatory). The film contains few white faces – I saw just one policeman (the event was largely stewarded by the Black Panthers) and Sly Stone’s drummer and saxophonist. We hear that this was the moment when “Black” started to replace “Negro” as the acceptable term used in the US media.
Everything comes to a head in the astounding performance by Nina Simone. After playing “Backlash Blues and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”, she reads out an incendiary poem by David Nelson of the Last Poets, called Are You Ready, Black People? The poem includes the lines “Are you ready to do what is necessary? … Are you ready to kill if necessary? … Are you ready to smash white things? To burn buildings? Are you ready?” It receives enthusiastic applause,
Cut to: an interview with Charlayne Hunter-Gault, one of the first two Black journalists “integrated” into a formerly white University. Hunter-Gault enrolled in the University of Georgia om 1961, as she wanted to learn journalism. Every day, her fellow (white, natch) students used to bang on the roof of her bedroom to unsettle her. She retaliated by playing Nina Simone records. Loud. She eventually became a successful journalist.
This is a phenomenal film which everyone should try to see. It is non-didactic enough for many people to not see the underlying radicalism, but hopefully, even these people will be encouraged to look at the underlying history, and to ask why US-America was so fucked up then and is still largely fucked-up.
And if you want to avoid the politics and just listen to the music, the soundtrack is phenomenal, but unless you understand why these records were made when they were made, you can’t fully appreciate the greatness of what is on offer.