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This photo is of The Roofless Church, a world famous church in New Harmony, IN. The dome here is part of a beautiful walled 8 acre open space and Jane Blaffer Owen got press in the NYT for her amazing dream come true. Notice anything strange in this photo? And who's that young guy? Photo Credit: James K. Mellow, St. Louis MO

Mar 14, 2022

Film Review "Summer of Soul"

 

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YIPPIEEE!  2022 Academy Award Winner for Documentary!!! Hell to the YES!

Summer of Soul (Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) ~ Film Review

          Here is one white woman’s take on this extraordinary film. I was 22 that summer of 1969 and called Chicago home. I see some real American pain and was crying in several parts of this well-crafted look at who we were that year. Good news ~ plenty of opportunity to dance, so get up and move!

           Yes, it’s a 2022 Oscar nominated documentary. Yes, it’s all 1969 USA values, news, perspectives, music, war, and pain. If you weren’t born yet, maybe you think 1969 was some easy time for the new hippies partying on with some kick-ass great music. Kinda.

          1969 was also a year of violence, from Vietnam war raging on, to street violence in every major city in America. It was time to face extremely harsh realities of what we thought we were as Americans and what the nasty reality was exposing. The producers of this film dug deep into 1969 film/news clips to give us, in 2021, a solid understanding of those summer days. Yes, they were fortunate to discover the 45+ hours of film footage in someone’s basement, all the music of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, and then to weave in clips of facts of the times, a worthy film. Interspersed with the wide variety of music genres are fresh interviews with folks who were either there as audience, or on stage performing. We get to see their reactions to the film footage, and I really appreciate this aspect. 

          Here’s an ugly American truth: a national housing policy enacted in the mid-20th century called redlining. That FDR govt. policy kept millions of African Americans in the ghettos, they could NOT rent or buy in calmer ‘hoods, NO NO NO. So, believe me when I tell you young folks, ’69 wasn’t a day at the beach for lots of fine people. When you hear B.B. King sing about how the cockroaches chat with the bedbugs and rats, he was making a point that was a reality in most inner-city housing. Really. I still double plastic bag all my cooking grains. Yeah, I’m white, and usually lived in cheap housing, even a condemned place in 1968-9. Cheap rent. Next place was weirder, shared bathroom down the hall. Cheap rent. Those Washington, D.C. cockroaches were BIG, they had sex with the rats.

1969.

Harlem

           One high energy Black performer/lounge singer/promoter, Tony Lawrence, stepped into American History with his idea of having a summer series of six weekend music shows at a small park in Harlem, a ‘hood in New York City.

          Harlem Cultural Festival!  FREE! Approximately 300,000+ folks came to see, enjoy, groove, dance, picnic, connect, and learn (white guy plays the drums? Black woman plays the trumpet?). The Temptations lost lead singer David Ruffin but here he is doing a solo of “My Girl.” Crowds could have great music and go home to sleep in their own beds, not the mud and shit show of Woodstock. These weekend music events in Harlem were trouble free, by the way. Well, except when the crowd was REAL eager to see Sly and The Family Stone! Tony Lawrence handled that one with class and authority.

           Tony was THE guy to get it rolling, always with a smile, always with Plan B, always focused on who, what, when, where, why. The NYC Parks were kinda sorta helping, but even City police refused to provide security for performers, after previous summer of riots – and I mean RIOTS – in NYC and all through inner cities through USA in 1968. NY City police weren’t going to work a Black music thing in  -  in HARLEM?  Hell No. Black Panthers filled the security void. Love them. FYI, performing artists need security, who’s allowed backstage, all that.

           Get ready! You’re in for a fab look at a superb doc, it’s worth the time, the effort, the maze of Hulu to see it. Do it! You are in for a super show.

           I first heard it mentioned in my facebook stuff earlier last summer, ok, some music thing from ’69? Yeah, ok, I’ll try to catch it. Didn’t just then, too much depressing news by the day lately, Afghanistan nightmare, just couldn’t find time and space for whatever that doc was. Well, some link to an interview with one of the primary folks who looked at every minute of those many hours of raw film footage and how the doc was built –  Ahmir QuestLove Thompson   total unknown to me by the way – but I checked the link, here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NEnQCnPnbis 

           Hmm, interesting. Ok, I’ll try to figure out how to see this thing. Hulu? Huh? Oh ick, another thing I gotta have a password for, $ for, I hate parts of the 21st century…

           Hulu free for first month. Ok, I’ll give them my # stuff.

          Finally clicked Summer of Soul and two hours later I’m a new person. It changes me in healthy ways.

           How, you ask?

           Well, among many aspects of the content, for me, not being church-ish, oh, Gospel music? Hmm, maybe exit. Yet the producers handled this portion of music with smart ways to invite me in and I stayed with it  ~ ~ ~  HUGE change for me. I had been so deeply impressed with Rev. Al Sharpton as he did one of the funeral services for George Floyd, so now this, ok, I can handle this. Rev. Sharpton’s interview is simply wonderful, “Gospel is therapy for us.” Yeah, I’d heard the name Mahalia Jackson, never ever saw any of her work, did see a play locally a few years ago by new Black theater group – Face Off Theatre – they did a play about Mahalia, and I saw it, still didn’t understand her power. Until this film.  I see Mahalia in full passion form, singing her heart out for this crowd in Harlem, probably many in the crowd weren’t gospel followers either, but they loved this, thank God for the crowd shots. How young and now elder Rev. Jessie Jackson introduces a song is strong. Expect tears. Truth is so ugly sometimes. BANG

           A wonderful fact – many folks seeing this fresh film have contacted the producers, as they see a long lost relative in a crowd shot, such as a young man who went to Vietnam the next year, was killed there, and no photos of him existed. Until now.

           And my fav concept from one of the wise folks, Greg Tate, writer and musician, being recently interviewed: how music is changing, how the culture is changing, and here with the Harlem Fest of 1969, we have the “ministry of fun” on film. Check the crowd shots, so wonderful to see a sea of Black people having fun. Thank God.

           I had the “text” thing going with the doc, helped me a great deal to catch much more of the song lyrics and chat info, but when the text thing is over the person’s creds, that’s a bummer. More reason to watch it a few times, yeah!

           A+ to the editors, the pace of the doc is most enjoyable as it moves fast, gives ’69 news then pivots to great music, two hours fly by. Absolutely fantastic filming all through, A+ to those folks dealing with the camera work that summer. I’ve tried to ID the cameras, some in a pit, obviously some on the sides, one up in line with performers, and what we see with the edits is really quite extraordinary. Close-ups, action shots, long range views, and the most wonderful crowd shots. Some of those happy people are my soul sisters and brothers! Such a bummer that the last week of the Fest was not filmed, they had another commitment, something about a Sesame Street thing. It’s not a perfect world, eh?

           Who knew that GOP NY Mayor John Lindsey was a good guy?! I was a Chicago gal then, yep, Dem Mayor Daley, the “vote early and vote often” guy. Seemed funny at the time…  How I value the news of how JFK and Bobby Kennedy were valued by Blacks. Whew.

          And the music! WOW!!!

          The first we see, Stevie Wonder!!!  I helped make that guy a success! I knew him as “Little Stevie Wonder” and saw him live at Walled Lake Casino, 1962, he was 12 years old! I was 16! That little blind kid blew 1,000 white teens away! I would tell my mom I had to babysit, then hitchhike to Walled Lake Casino for great live music and dancing all night. Stupid, yes, wonderful, yes, and Thank God I live to smile. Later in Summer of Soul, we meet current Stevie Wonder along with clips of his activism through the years. He worked for Black voting rights, getting MLK birthday a national holiday, and much more. He has something to say about fear, check it.

          Oh, that music. Stevie, then the Chambers Brothers, B.B. King, 5th Dimension and recent interview with two of them and the hilarious story of how they got to see NY theatre play “Hair” and what came of that, the Edwin Hawkins Singers with truly amazing lead singer Dorothy Morrison “Oh Happy Day” and shock of how their own church dissed them, Papa Staples and the Staples Singers and how Papa got his first guitar ~ woweee, Mahalia Jackson in that hot summer sun, “Halie don’t feel good,” David Ruffin now free of The Temptations and sings solo, dude can hold a note!, Gladys Knight and the Pips and recent interview with Gladys giving some way cool history of Motown, Sly and the Family Stone, Mongo Stantamaria, Ray Barretto, Sunny Sharrock, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln WOW, Hugh Masekela, Nina Simone – YIKES! ~ she’s all done with the non-violent thing, put your seat belt on for her performance. She rolls out a new song just then, “Young, Gifted, and Black.” Hell to the Yes.

          Keep in mind that Harlem wasn’t one big happy family, next street over was Spanish Harlem, and conflicts among both were real. That organizer Tony Lawrence made stage time for several amazing New Yorican (Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Cuba, etc.) music groups was wise.

          Guess what? Jimi wanted to play! Wasn’t invited! WTF?! So, Jimi did several late-night gigs in area bars with Blues folks, Jimi was gettin’ much more interested in the Blues. If only…

          Amazing music, often accompanied by 10 piece bands, sometimes more, there must have been 40 singers with the Edwin Hawkins Singers, all filmed by pros, many up close and personal shots of musicians working, and in between, we get such valuable context by such thinkers as Charlyane Hunter Gault, giving her harsh background as freshman college gal and what evil she was forced to endure for her education - grrrrrrrr. Later, when she wrote for the NY Times, used the word “Black” instead of “Negro” and what shit ensued. This valuable aspect of Summer of Soul, how the African American culture was going through some sharp turns is so very interesting. For me, this is the true value of the doc, but weave in that music, and I want more!

          I hold hope that there will be more docs from the film footage, and I have an idea.  A friend, Karen Taborn, former kazoo gal, younger sis of my good friend and Blues singer Annette (Cleveland) Taborn. Karen has lived in Harlem for many years now and created a worthy job for herself – she gives walking tours of Harlem, now has second book out, Walking Harlem, The Ultimate Guide to the Cultural Capital of Black America. Methinks there are surely more docs to be pulled from the 1969 film footage, and hey, a perfect time to have clips, short interviews, and more to show us what Harlem means to America. All we see in this doc is Harlem’s fall from grace, and yet how beautiful is the clip of the woman, of going as a teen to the concerts that summer, how she loved Harlem, how she felt safe there, how she made lifelong friends there. I hope the next doc from this stash of gold film footage can give us Harlem context. Please?

          Here’s another link to enjoy: https://www.npr.org/2022/01/26/1075850442/questloves-summer-of-soul-brings-lost-music-back-to-life

          Had this been music only, well, yeah, wonderful. But the folks going through all the hours of raw film footage crafted a truly valuable piece of American history with the context of the news, the issues, the truth, and the reasons this small park and what happened there, then, matters. Oh, man on the moon. Really.

           I’ve had the joy to talk a few loves into seeing this doc with me, different times/places, but each had not heard much of anything about it but were kind to honor my plea. Add the complications of anyone getting together for anything in covd times, ugh. To my joy, how wonderful to watch each of them, about mid-way through the film, start to open their eyes to what this is about. Much more than film of some music thing. I had asked one friend, before watching, where were you in summer 1969? She kind of puzzled that, hmm, a kid about 9, ok. Well, when we see the moon landing clip, she jumped and shouted “OH!!!!!! I know exactly where I was in summer of ’69! My dad took me, one of my sisters, and my brother to visit our grandmother in Columbia that summer. When they walked on the moon, we watched it on a tiny tv!”

           I realized I was in Los Alamos, NM, with my new lover, a prof, watching that moon landing. Miss you, John Kiefer. Kisses to wherever you are, sweet man. Yeah, he was part of the whoever Los Alamos National Laboratory whatever, he was a serious thinker about energy engineering and insisted his place in UICC also include him in Chemistry. Beautiful person that I should have bonded with…

           I admit, I felt much like the folks we see talking to news people in Summer of Soul regarding the moon landing. I also thought it was a waste of money and our ghettoes were only in more deep shit due to neglect by the powers who be. Remember, I lived in Chicago, some cops were as cold as Chauvin.

          Two young folks watched it because I kinda twisted their arm, both not born yet in ’69, they had both kinda thought the doc would be blah blah blah - - - and both were VERY taken with what it is. Methinks the harsh reality of George Floyd’s murder, May, 2020, has brought the reality of our color problems to the table. Time to talk.

          That’s another truly amazing aspect of Summer of Soul, the context of what folks of color were grappling with in terms of fashion, family, and even how to talk about themselves – you be a negro or a colored or a Black? Yep, ’69, the times, they were a changin’. Maybe time for NAACP update? NAABP? Kinda interesting, my 2022 NAACP membership card doesn’t tell what NAACP stands for. Hmm.

           The folks doing all the extraordinary work to bring this doc to us in 2021, well, of course they were putting all kinds of attention to it for two years previous, so it was still in production when George Floyd was murdered. There’s one moment in the doc when I wish they’d added a moment of Floyd’s last minutes. It would leave no doubt to the point they made, see if you can find it.

          Lots of credits roll, and if you can read real fast, you’ll see a disclaimer that all permissions weren’t given, this had to be a legal headache x1000. Some of the performers are gone, some of their heirs are gone, some of the agencies are gone, and nobody can find out what happened to Tony Lawrence. He disappeared from all contact sources, they still hope someone somewhere will know of Tony, maybe he’s still alive. Hope.

          I agree with Questlove, time is really the star of the doc. I’m no fan of the Oscar thing, but if they be as smart as they want us to think they are, Summer of Soul should get it’s due in 2022. I dropped all interest in Oscar mess when Amistad was dissed.

           FYI, after all credits roll, one more short clip that is LOL, Stevie!

           And how cool is the Maxwell House coffee ad? Why General Foods didn’t cough up more $ for putting a film together of all the film footage they probably financed, hmm. By the Grace of God, the film reels lasted long enough for this spectacular showing! Enjoy!

          Ah, Vietnam. The Summer of Soul glimpses of USA involvement in that small country gives me sleepless nights again. So much of my adult life has been shaped and shamed by this “police action” or “military incursion” and don’t call it WAR. That was not happening in my govt., as calling it a “War” would demand Congressional approval. Our elected officials dodged that one with just calling it something else. We be lied to time and time again. I’m so done with lies from the top. Gettin’ old. Through the doc, we see hard facts about Vietnam, footage of flag draped caskets, mentions of it in some songs.

          For instance, when Nina Simone sings “Mr. Backlash” and we hear “send my only son to Vietnam.” Know what that is about? Supposedly, if only one son in family, that guy was exempt from enlistment. Among many Black families, however, that policy was thrown out. It’s also mentioned in the doc how the death toll of US soldiers was much larger for Blacks. I’ve heard an army recruiter lie was frequently told to teen guys who were walking in a mall, “Hey, you 18? You want to be a MAN? Come join the Army, those Viet commies will come over here and kill Blacks, so we gotta kill them over there. Sign right here.”

          By the way, over 100,000 American men my age died because of Vietnam. Over 50,000 in the war, and another 50,000 died after they returned, many single car crashes, most likely suicides. If you haven’t been to The Wall, go. MLK had something to say about Vietnam, I love him for his courage.

          How many Vietnamese died? How many women, children, elders, just like we see on tv today, innocent people getting killed in Ukraine. How I appreciate the point made in a M.A.S.H episode, which, by the way, is set in Korea but a commentary on Vietnam. Hawkeye and Fr. Mulcahy are discussing the comment “War is hell.” Hawkeye says, “No, War is war and hell is hell.” Fr. Mulcahy questions this. Hawkeye explains, “Who goes to hell, Father?” Mulcahy replies, “Sinners, I believe.” Hawkeye, “Yes, exactly. There are no innocent bystanders in hell. War is chock full of them, little children, cripples, old ladies, the innocents die for nothing.” Vietnam was having a civil war, why did USA jump in to make it worse? My Lai, oh, My Lai, 1968 massacre of 500 Vietnamese women, children, and elders in their small village, we did that. Oh yeah, capitalists needed our massive firepower to save Bank of America, etc. oh yeah. Thugs with guns for the corporate dudes.

           I knew a tiny bit about the Catholic people, some priests and others, maybe a nun in there, who, in Maryland, May 1968, walked into a draft board, pushed the staff out of the way and hauled out hundreds of pending draft notices and burned them with homemade napalm in full view of news cameras. Wow. I wasn’t Catholic, but I was impressed with their determination to educate America about what was happening with the draft and the Vietnam War. They became known worldwide as the Cantonsville Nine, they wanted press, arranged for it, knew they’d do time for the action, and yeah, each one of them handled the aftermath in their own way. One of the women hid for many years, finally turned herself in, and was clear – “Do NOT call me a peace activist. I was not, I am not. I went to war.” Excellent nonfiction account of these people in recent book, The Catonsville Nine, A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era, Shawn Francis Peters.

           Yeah, all young men who turned 18 had to register with the draft – still do, and in 1960s as Vietnam became a military goal, lots of young guys were getting a draft notice in their mailbox. All kinds of ways to avoid the draft, like be enrolled full-time in college, or be the only male kid in the family – -  but OFTEN ignored for many Black families - - or be a father with a kid – that sure accelerated LOTS of guys wanting to be daddy - - or and yeah, all the health stuff that could lead to not going to Vietnam, TONS of that stuff, like GW Bush, Chump, too, some flat foot bullshit. Some young men took off to Canada, others became aware of the Quaker folks who offered the possibility of a difficult path to refuse to fight. That became harder as the “police action” WAR – became harsher, harsher, harsher, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, and finally finally 1975 as we evacuated folks by helicopter from the roof of our Embassy in Saigon, yeah, that defeat show. Commies 1, capitalists 0.

          I can’t stop thinking about Colin Powell, yep, that guy, he was a young officer in Vietnam, he HAD to see the death toll on young Black men. He must have had ice in his veins. And he’s a Harlem guy, that too. The lure of military honor, metals, ribbons, perks, was more important than life to him. Well, don’t get me started about his Iraq crap. Cheney used him and clearly, Powell went along with the idea that we can bomb Iraq back to the 8th century… Years later Powell admitted he’d been wrong about “weapons of mass destruction.” How many kids did we kill today, Colin?

          I was 22 that summer of ‘69, kind of aware of inner city happs, lived in low rent places, got mugged a few times, stupid me thought I could ride my bike to and from my cheap rental apt in Chicago west side, up Taylor St., to my job off Taylor St. at UICC, I was head receptionist at UICC, College of Engineering. If you needed to drop a class, I was part of the  machine that would make that happen. I wasn’t a hippie, didn’t smoke pot, needed my full-time job to get that paycheck thing. Many folks my age and younger started dressing weird, letting their hair go weird, at least such as I could see on campus or as I traveled around Chicago. They weren’t getting jobs; they were risking unemployment at every turn. Hell to the no, I needed my job, and damn it, it looked like they were smoking cigs, ugh, no thanks.

          Vietnam was in full kill mode. I was kinda thinking about how could my govt. be so wrong about whatever we were supposed to be killing lots of Viet folks over? Did they want my job? Did they not like our flag? Am I supposed to care if they like the commie thing? What? 

          I tried to listen, tried to learn. I do remember a letter from my big bro, who, as a kid, was a happy Boy Scout, then a happy teen going to Civil Air Patrol stuff, then he found out in college if he signed up for the army, he could finish undergrad and they would pay for his college stuff. Yep, he signed, went into ROTC, and zipped fast into Vietnam as a cool officer who could jump out of planes. He could see up close and personal what that “police action” really meant, and wrote me a letter from Vietnam, probably 1967, “this whole country isn’t worth one G.I.’s life.”  I mulled this over, looked at the folks protesting the Vietnam thing, and grappled with where to plant my feet. After all, I was from a law-abiding white working-class family, if the Army says they gotta shoot, well, there must be a good reason. Military guys through my fam, even an aunt who served, some lifers in Navy, Marines, yeah, my fam. So for me to step into the hippie anti-war zone was a big step.

          1968 was interesting and educational, as I was fortunate to be companion to a fellow who was assistant to Sherman Skolnick, a notable fellow around Chicago, as earlier he broke the back of the Illinois Supreme Court by proving that two of the five justices were corrupt and taking bribes. Sherm also saved many Polish folks from financial ruin by saving their money in a local bank that was about to crash. Sherm could smell grift and knew how to do thorough research. Going out with Sherm was always interesting, as many respected him and thanked him as we entered a restaurant. I started to have a clue that my government wasn’t watching for my best interests, only theirs.

          Summer of 1969 I was finding out that if I signed some stuff, I could be a full-time college gal! Hell YES! Where do I sign? And Uncle Sam will also give me enough $ to pay crappy rent in a crappy place? OK! Jan. 1970, at 23 yrs. old, I became a full-time freshman at UICC, me, a college person! Time for some changes, oh yeah.

           Years later I realized that what I signed wasn’t a grant, it was a loan. When I had a real job, Uncle Sam took my tiny tax return $ for years. Gulp.

          Back to 1969, that summer. Yeah, I heard about Woodstock, lots of hippies smokin’ cigs, big music party, folks getting nude in the mud, mega traffic jams in wherever NY. I was busy getting mugged in Chicago, breaking up with one guy, starting new love with a prof., didn’t buy music, didn’t follow much music, wasn’t dancing anymore, I was a responsible adult and trying so very much to put my harsh past behind me. Gave a kid up for adoption 1966, wasn’t sure who the daddy was, yeah, me. 1968 divorce from a guy I’d loved very much, but damn it, he sure didn’t give that back, prison doesn’t help guys be better people. I ripped our apt to shreds and left.

          My life was not real balanced, and I hurt people. 


          I have no fantasy of being young again, no thanks. And how to explain why the song in Summer of Soul, “Oh Happy Day” moves me deeply and I don’t call myself a Christian? In this white woman’s messed up life, there must be some universal balance that helped me get my shit straight. Oh Happy Day!

Comic courtesy of Harry Bliss, Funny Times April 2022