‘The revolution could not be televised’: why were so many black concert films erased from history? | Film

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Rousing new music doc Summer of Soul reveals an embarrassment of riches on stage at the 1969 Harlem cultural festival: Stevie Wonder (doing a drum solo), Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight, Nina Simone and so many more. It was nicknamed Black Woodstock: a joyous celebration of Black pride at a pivotal moment in US history. All of which will make many viewers wonder: why have we never heard of it before?

The key reason is because this film footage languished unseen in a basement for the past 50 years. But the omission also points to cinema’s role in writing pop-cultural history, and how few Black hands had access to those levers of media power. Hence Summer of Soul’s subtitle: … Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised.

The actual Woodstock festival, for example, took place around the same time as the Harlem cultural festival, less than 100 miles away. Its status as a defining 60s moment benefited from the Oscar-winning film that was put together within six months, with editors including Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker. The canon of concert movies is one largely written by white people: DA Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop and Ziggy Stardust, the Maysles’ Gimme Shelter, Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, right up to Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense: fine films in their own right, but we’re beginning to see the gaps in this history.

Some white film-makers did turn their gaze to Black music. But as with Summer of Soul, we have often had to wait decades to see the results. Sidney Pollack’s incredible footage of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 shows at a Los Angeles Baptist church was only finally released, as Amazing Grace, in 2018, after problems with the sound sync and ownership (Franklin sued over using the footage without her permission). Similarly, the Zaire 74 festival to accompany Muhammad Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle bout featured James Brown and BB King, but the footage only emerged on the doc Soul Power in 2009. The 1972 Wattstax stadium concert fared better, but the film had to cut out its headliner, Isaac Hayes, since MGM vetoed use of his songs from the Shaft soundtrack.

The picture is not entirely black and white: Jimi Hendrix bestrides the era like a colossus and the multi-racial Sly and the Family Stone played at both Harlem and Woodstock. But in recent decades, Black artists have gained the power to tell their own stories. Today we have bar-setting concert movies such as Beyoncé’s Homecoming. And let’s not forget Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, inspired by Wattstax and whose lineup included Kanye West, Erykah Badu and the Roots. Their drummer Questlove directed Summer of Soul, which like all great concert movies captures a moment in history. “It wasn’t just the music; we wanted progress,” says Gladys Knight in the film.

It turned out to be a long wait.

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