But how did the festival get from the dustbin of history to Questlove’s hard drive? It started in 2012 when Robert Fyvolent, an entertainment lawyer and former studio executive, was talking with a friend about rights clearances for a Ken Burns-style soul documentary. The friend mentioned the existing footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival. Fyvolent, intrigued, wondered if that was a better movie. He decided to track down Tulchin at his home in Bronxville, outside New York. Tulchin, then in his 80s, led Fyvolent to the tapes in his basement.
“Over the years, I don’t think he was unaware that he had these materials and they were valuable. But I think he had grown cynical that he could get anybody’s attention,” says Fyvolent. “They were well cared for. They weren’t on, like, a dusty shelf.”
“It was like opening a treasure chest,” he says.
Some 300,000 people poured into the free, daytime concerts. The audiences were overwhelmingly Black, with families throughout. Children and grandparents came to watch and listen. Conceived in part as a way for the community to heal after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. the year before, the Harlem Cultural Festival, where the Black Panthers handled security, throbbed with the tumult of the times — a pivotal year, the Rev. Al Sharpton says in the film, “where the Negro died and Black was born.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who appeared on stage at the festival, speaks about the moon landing that summer: “When we’re more concerned about the moon than men, somebody better wake up.”