Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots will direct a documentary about the so-called Black Woodstock, a series of concerts in 1969 for the Harlem Cultural Festival that drew 300,000 people.
The concert was extensively videotaped by TV pioneer Hal Tulchin, who died in 2017. For decades, wrangling over money and legal rights has derailed attempts to assemble a film from the 40 hours of footage of artists who included Nina Simone, David Ruffin, Sly and the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, the 5th Dimension, and Gladys Knight and the Pips.
Thompson issued a statement saying he is “truly excited to help bring the passion, the story and the music of the Harlem Cultural Festival to audiences around the world. The performances are extraordinary. I was stunned when I saw the lost footage for the first time. It’s incredible to look at 50 years of history that’s never been told, and I’m eager and humbled to tell that story.”
Several filmmakers have made an attempt to convert the footage into a feature film, including most recently Morgan Neville, who has produced documentaries about Ray Charles, James Brown, Johnny Cash, and the 2013 backup singer documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. Neville’s bid and other projects were reportedly derailed by financial concerns.
Those issues have been resolved, and the project is now in the hands of documentary producers David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent, who said in a statement they are “so proud to be working alongside... Thompson on his directorial debut." Questlove will bring his musician’s eye and ear to the legendary footage, described by the producers as “unusually rich in texture and feel.”
Their producing partners in the project include RadicalMedia, the firm that produced What Happened, Miss Simone?, one of the only films to have made use of the Black Woodstock footage, which includes Simone’s legendary live performance of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”
Tulchin was a director of TV commercials living and working in New York when he decided to film the concerts — which took place from June 29 to Aug. 24 at what is now Marcus Garvey Park — using five video cameras to capture the events.
Network interest was minimal at the time, and portions of the footage ended up being shown in local media outlets in 1969. Tulchin went on to direct network concert specials featuring Chubby Checker and Little Richard, but his efforts to make a Black Woodstock documentary came to naught.
Tulchin believed that the concerts received little exposure because networks were leery of some of the political content, including comments by Simone. At one point the Black Panther party took over security when New York authorities declined to provide police for a performance by Sly and the Family Stone.
Though it drew hundreds of thousands of fans, the lack of media exposure ensured that the concert series never received anything approaching the attention paid in 1969 to Woodstock, which occurred Aug. 15-19 in Bethel, N.Y.