The Roots star Questlove on political activism and ‘making history right’

The Roots star Questlove has said he wants to “let people know how important it is to use your voice for political activism” and aims to “make history right” with his directorial film debut about a music festival dubbed “black Woodstock”.

The Harlem Cultural Festival took place in the summer of 1969, the same year as Woodstock, but has been largely lost to time despite boasting music superstars including Stevie Wonder, Sly And The Family Stone, 5th Dimension, Nina Simone and Gladys Knight in the line-up.

The festival was filmed but the footage was left abandoned in a basement for 50 years and all but forgotten until the drummer, author and DJ, whose real name is Ahmir Thompson, began work on a movie about the event.

He told the PA news agency: “My first question was just ‘How did this sit in a basement for 50 years, and nobody cared about it?’

“There was Sly And The Family Stone and Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone, and Ray Barretto and The Chambers Brothers – this is nothing to sneeze at.”

When he was approached to make Summer Of Soul, Thompson said he was “not overwhelmed but I was nervous”, adding: “This is the first time that I’m using my creativity like this.

“I know that creativity is transferable. I’ve written books, I’ve taught class, I’ve done podcasts, I’ve made music, I’ve scored music – but in telling a story with the visual medium, I knew that I this is my chance to make history right.

Nina Simone performs at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 (20th Century Studios/Searchlight Pictures/PA)

“So I don’t even see this as a directorial debut, more than I just see it as my duty to let the world know that we were here.

“We know about Woodstock, but this was right there with it and this should have been held up in the same light and be an equivalent, so this is my chance to do that.”

Thompson said he decided to set the film in the context of what it was like to be black and live in the Harlem area of New York City at the time, highlighting police brutality and injustice and the frustration felt about the Moon landing, following the global attention on the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020.

“We planted the seeds of the Summer Of Soul movie in 2017 and, up until late 2018, I was thinking of just a straight music performance and not taking the viewer out of the festival.

“But, as time kept marching on, this film wrote itself, and to do a lion’s share of the editing and storytelling during the pandemic, and the year that all of us had in the last year, it wasn’t lost on me that we were living in the exact conditions that were happening 50 years ago.

“I felt that that was a way to connect everyone together.

“Whereas normally a film of this calibre would just attract people that either lived there at the time who might take their grandchildren to see this film to show ‘This is the music I liked’, I wanted to make sure that I cover everything.

Gladys Knight & The Pips (20th Century Studios/Searchlight Pictures/PA)

“If you lived during that time period, you knew these artists, you knew the issues. If you were in the middle of my generation, you know these artists from sampling and us loving hip hop culture.

“And then, with Gen Z and with millennials, they’re living in the same exact conditions that cause that and I just felt that this included everyone.

“I really wanted to let people know how important it is to use your voice for political activism, and I think this film shows that well.”

– Summer Of Soul (… or, When The Revolution Could Not be Televised), will be released in cinemas in the UK and Ireland on July 16 and is streaming on Star on Disney+ on July 30.

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