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John DoughertyJune 16, 2023
Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson in ‘Summer of Soul’ (Hulu)Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson in ‘Summer of Soul’ (Hulu)

Editor’s note: Join John Dougherty for a discussion of this and other films by visiting the Catholic Movie Club on Facebook.

Juneteenth is a celebration of good news.

On June 19, 1865, enslaved Black Americans in Texas received word of the Emancipation Proclamation. While ending the practice of slavery would take more time, history recognizes this as the official end of slavery in the United States.

As we enter Juneteenth weekend, I thought it would be appropriate to use our second Catholic Movie Club film to celebrate this occasion. Instead of a story of slavery or oppression, I chose a film that celebrates Black culture and joy, full of both good news and Good News: “Summer of Soul (... Or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised),” the directorial debut of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. It was, appropriately enough, released mere days after Juneteenth became a federal holiday in 2021.

‘Summer of Soul’ celebrates Black culture and joy, full of both good news and Good News.

“Summer of Soul” is a remarkable documentary telling the story of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, sometimes called “the Black Woodstock.” Over the course of six weekends, 300,000 people gathered to see a pantheon of Black artists, including Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone, and Nina Simone. The festival was filmed, but the footage never saw wide release, languishing in a basement for 50 years. “Summer of Soul” presents that footage to a general audience for the first time, shining a spotlight on an event that was all but lost to history.

We also see festival performers and attendees watching and reacting to the footage in real time. They describe with awe the experience of entering a space where Blackness was not only accepted but celebrated. The revolutionary takeaway for many was: I am beautiful. We are beautiful. Our culture, our music, our fashion, our hair is beautiful. And it’s worth fighting for. More than a concert, “Summer of Soul” presents the festival as an opportunity for solidarity, to mourn the murders of Civil Rights leaders and to gain spiritual strength for the work still to come. As Gladys Knight notes: “It wasn’t just about the music.”

But the music is spectacular. Beyond being a collection of undeniable classics, the songs we hear express joy, sorrow, rage, hope with more potency than words ever could. “Gospel’s part of our DNA,” journalist Charlayne Hunter Gault observes, and the songs often move easily from performance to prayer. For me, the most transcendent moment is Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples’ showstopping rendition of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” In their voices you hear the pain and loss of the long struggle for freedom, but you also hear the faith that carries them, always, forward. God walks with the oppressed, a better, more just world is possible; when you hear them sing, you believe it.

In the spirit of Juneteenth, the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival was good news to Black Americans during a dynamic historical moment, one brimming with danger and potential. Summer of Soul is its own sort of good news, raising it out of historical obscurity and delivering its powerful message to today, a moment no less in need of hope and liberation, reminding us that God is present when we are together. By unearthing this history, “Summer of Soul” allows us to reimagine what is possible, to gain strength for the hard but necessary work of living the Gospel in our world. Now that truly is Good News.

“Summer of Soul” is streaming now on Hulu and Disney+.

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