B.B. King performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, featured in the documentary SUMMER OF SOUL. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

A return to simple public pleasures (restaurants, concerts, movies) has arrived.

Places are open, though often with restrictions and protective measures (masks; limited hours or admittance). 

It might be tempting to sit back until things are fully back to normal with no surprises, but that might take longer than is tolerable. 

In fact, it probably makes sense to strike now while the iron is hot, as who knows if or when the virus or a variant will heat things up the wrong way, curtailing activities again. 

We’ve seen some of that this month. At the beginning of August many public spots and businesses in Ithaca were requiring, after a hiatus, masks for their staffers. 

At Cinemapolis this past weekend there was some confusion about masks among patrons. A sign at the entrance says that masking is required for everyone.

“In the movies?” someone asked. “If we socially distance? I didn’t bring one.”

No problem: there is a box of them for customers at the door.   

Businesses are showing plenty of resilience in the pandemic. In downtown Ithaca businesses are also having to ramp up patience and fortitude amidst a jumble of street closings for annual summer repairs, not just this year’s but everything postponed from last.   

Businesses on the Commons have it particularly hard with the present demolition of the adjacent multi-story Green Street garage. It is quite a job, with the surprising (to a passing onlooker) scope of the effort. One sees a panorama of buildings previously hidden and at first glance it’s entirely easy to mistake the locale.  

Even at second glance it’s hard to find Cinemapolis. Its entrance is just off Green Street, beneath the upper floors of the garage. It is presently surrounded by scaffolds shrouded in plastic. Its alley to the Commons, important for foot traffic, is completely blocked off. 

But the theater is there for its patrons, who hopefully are reciprocating. 

The Ithacans I know are. I think that more than at any other time in my life when I mention to someone the movie I just saw there, I’ve been told “Yeah, I’ve seen it too.”

In this case it might also have to do with the movie, “Summer of Soul,” which seems custom-made for Ithaca, a town of music lovers. It is a documentary of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of free concerts held over the course of six summer weekends in 1969.

The film features B.B. KIng, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, the Staple Singers, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, Hugh Masekela, Stevie Wonder (age 19), and many worthy others. 

(A local note: in later years three of these cited performers visited Ithaca. The Family Stone, without Sly, were Saturday night headliners at GrassRoots Festival in 2015. In 2014, a year before his death at age 89, B.B. King had a sold out show at the State Theater. In 2007 Hugh Masekela, from South Africa, played at GrassRoots.)   

“Summer of Soul” was restored from tapes long forgotten and nearly lost. The documentary itself examines the historical neglect of the event compared with the attention given to the concurrent Woodstock Festival, contrasting the free family and community series in the inner city featuring Black performers of jazz, blues, and gospel with the commercial event primarily for white youth in a countryside escape two hours north of the city which embraced a mantra of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Which was and which wasn’t favored and remembered is dispiriting but unsurprising.

“Summer of Soul” is a true documentary rather than just a concert movie. It considers issues of the time that weren’t discussed in the mainstream, such as the over-representation of Black soldiers in battle in Vietnam, and the questionable expense and justification for the first moon landing, which happened on a concert weekend.

It also squarely addresses police violence, economic inequities, and other facets of endemic racism. Fighting back is a topic.

It was a time of growing resistance. In April 1969, students at Cornell, mainly Black, occupied Willard Straight Hall as part of a continuing protest against racist strata at the school and in society, and a curriculum insufficiently relevant to realities of inequality and oppression.  

The protests hastened change at Cornell, including the formation of the Africana Studies and Research Center. (For a subsequent column, we hope to speak with Dr. James Turner, the first director of the Center, retired and living in Ithaca.)

The film is not just historic but timely. The Harlem Cultural Festival was a landmark event at a critical juncture, and “Summer of Soul” is too, connecting the eras, linking artistic and political expression, and showing the power of community. We’re lucky it’s here to see. 


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