Questlove Revisits Forgotten “Black Woodstock” to make his Directorial Film Debut

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson became a film director the moment he saw footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival. The celebration of soul, gospel and funk that took place over six Sundays at Harlem’s Mount Morris Park in 1969, in the year after Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, featured an incredible lineup that included Stevie Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone, Nina Simone, B.B. King and the Staples Singers. And yet, the footage lay sitting in a basement for 50 years—the music history almost lost to the world.

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In an interview during this year’s virtual Sundance Film Festival, where Questlove’s film Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) opened the event and had its world premiere, the Roots drummer says he was compelled by the footage he saw of what came to be dubbed “Black Woodstock,” to create the documentary. “I should have grown up watching this,” he said. “It could have informed me.”

Instead the Harlem Cultural Festival was far overshadowed by Woodstock, happening some 100 miles away. “I thought I was an all-knowing kind of sage of everything music,” Questlove said. But even he hadn’t known about the festival, which attracted around 300,000 people, when producers David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent first showed footage of it to him.

Captured by filmmaker Hal Tulchin, who recorded the event in its entirety, the footage lay in his basement, after he couldn’t sell it to studios. Dinerstein and Fyvolent obtained the never-before- seen material and took it to Questlove in 2017, presenting The Tonight Show bandleader and music aficionado with the opportunity to make his directorial feature debut. “I was like, ‘Why are you coming to me?’” he said. “Besides a Common video, I have no experience in this medium. Don’t you want a real director to do this?”

Questlove added director to his prolific resume in 2002 when he made the music video for “Come Close,” which Common performed with Mary J Blige, but making a film was next level. “Sure your ego will make you want to do this but this is a historical first,” he said, of the chance to assemble the 45 hours of concert footage into a film. “I was like, ‘Why would you guys trust me behind this 18-wheeler when I just got my permit last week?’ but, then, on the other side of it, I am the guy that sits in the theatre always telling my date, ‘Okay, that never happened,’ or ‘This music cue is wrong.’ I’m the snob that real directors hate because I’ll be like, ‘That didn’t happen—that was in 1962.”

The producers were persistent and 8 months later, Questlove says he knew the film was “my destiny because once I saw the footage I knew that I had to tell this story.” Summer of Soul puts the concert into context, paying close attention to the artists involved but also to the political and social climate in the 1969 USA, with its racial injustice and antiwar protests.

Creating the two-hour documentary was a process in itself, with the first rough cut clocking in around 3 hours and 40 minutes. Questlove describes his vision board planning for the film as “looking like one of those CSI episodes, with the yarn and the string everywhere.

“Then you do your first interview and all it takes is one line or one factoid that you have to investigate and that becomes a rabbit hole,” he said. “You do about 10 or 15 of these and then, next thing you know, you have to burn down your house, your premise, because now you have this other valuable information.”

Through the doc, Questlove also raises the question of why so much of Black culture has not been included in the history books. “The circumstances that brought about that concert 50 years ago are still now affecting us today,” he said. “Watching the footage showed me how much hasn’t changed; it was like watching it in real time. The burning question that was underneath it all was the idea of Black erasure. I couldn’t get it out of my mind.”

The foundation for Questlove’s appreciation of film comes from almost 20 years of spending 220-250 days of the year on a tour bus. “The way that I passed the time was I literally put myself through film school,” he said. “Watching [my] Criterion Collection and director’s cuts of films. This was before, I didn’t even know I had the desire to make a film. But I did know there’s parallels with other creative forms.”

As he explains it, he’s obsessed with the engine of things, how they work. Questlove used that passion to guide his filmmaking for Summer of Soul. “There were two kinds of questions I would ask,” he said. “General basics to serve the film and then also, I’m a sucker for Easter eggs, so I’d look for hidden tracks or whatever, anything that is about obsessing with the engine.”

Questlove admits to wanting to know “every nook and cranny of the details”—like what snacks Stevie Wonder had backstage—so he’d rely on producer Joe Patel to help him decide what should be left on the cutting room floor. “It’s a fine balance between serving the story and sneaking you a treat, too,” he said.

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