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‘Summer of Soul’ and ‘Dick Gregory’ offer windows into the civil-rights era


Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

A pair of documentaries showcase strong directing debuts by Black filmmakers for the Fourth of July weekend: “Summer of Soul” transforms long-lost video into an intoxicating and layered look back at the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969; and “The One and Only Dick Gregory” celebrates the comedian who dropped the stand-up mic to take up the mantle of civil-rights activism.

In an impressive curatorial feat, musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson directed what’s fully titled “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised),” which focuses on a musical program that had been lost to history: A six-week Harlem concert series that featured a dizzying array of acts and attracted roughly 50,000 patrons every week.

The event, however, unfurled in the shadow of Woodstock, and the footage sat dormant for a half-century, making the raw performances alone enough to turn “Summer of Soul” — which premieres in theaters as well as on Hulu — into what feels like a genuine event.

Thompson really lets the music play in order to appreciate the artists, augmenting that by interviewing people who attended the festival, reacquainting them with a time of cultural awakening during their youth. For many, it’s an emotional experience, including singer Marilyn McCoo, who tears up seeing her performance with The 5th Dimension.

There are plenty of other highlights — indeed, a little something for every musical taste — with footage of Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Sly & the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, and B.B. King.

Activist Al Sharpton calls 1969 a “pivotal year,” and the images from the festival and its “party atmosphere” underscore ways that the culture was evolving in everything from fashions to language, with journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault recalling how as a New York Times reporter she prompted her editors to switch from using “Negro” to “Black.”

“Summer of Soul” contextualizes the music by illustrating the anti-war movement and racial unrest, as well as how this distinctively African-American undertaking was largely ignored while Woodstock garnered headlines (and produced a memorable documentary) 100 miles away.

In one striking sequence, Thompson weaves in news coverage of the moon landing, as a CBS reporter goes to the festival to conduct man-on-the-street interviews. To his apparent surprise, he finds some attendees more concerned about injustice on Earth than exploration of space.

The film comes amid a wave of musical nostalgia in the content-hungry realm of streaming, including the recent “1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything,” Hulu’s upcoming docuseries devoted to Paul McCartney and Peter Jackson’s much-anticipated Beatles project for Disney+.

Many of these documentaries feel complementary, but who has time for them all? Whether it’s consumed on a big screen or a small one, “Summer of Soul” earns a place near the top of that menu.

“Dick Gregory,” meanwhile, focuses on a singular personality who cast a giant shadow over both comedy and the civil-rights movement.

Gregory became one of America’s hottest comedians with his acerbic brand of social commentary, chain-smoking his way through sets (he used cigarettes to punctuate his jokes) and quickly going from poverty to a $5,000-a-night headliner.

Gregory’s friendship with civil-rights activist Medgar Evers, however, prompted him to become increasingly involved in the struggle for equality, traveling extensively in the Deep South. He essentially tabled his career after Evers’ murder outside his home in Mississippi, which devastated him, throwing himself into the cause.

Director Andre Gaines speaks to a roster of voices that range from Gregory’s family and contemporary Harry Belafonte to Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle and other comics who weigh in regarding his influence. “He set a very high bar for the people that came after him,” Chappelle says, while W. Kamau Bell — the host of CNN’s “United Shades of America” — calls him “a pioneer in political comedy.”

Gregory engaged in a series of hunger strikes — refusing to eat solid food and losing dangerous amounts of weight — eventually transforming that into a weight-loss and health business aimed at those in poverty.

Indeed, his later years are especially colorful, as Gregory — who died in 2017 — found his way back to the standup stage, having used those skills for years in other venues such as the college-lecture circuit.

“Once you get a man laughing with you,” Gregory is shown saying, “it’s hard for him to laugh at you.”

“The One and Only Dick Gregory” highlights Gregory’s particular knack for getting people to laugh with him, and more significantly, the sacrifices he made in pursuit of greater objectives than the roar of a crowd and that nightly paycheck.

“Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Would Not be Televised)” premieres July 2 in theaters and on Hulu.

“The One and Only Dick Gregory” premieres July 4 at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.

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