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Film Watch Weekly: The Heat Is On with ‘Summer of Soul’ and ‘Zola’

The revival of a landmark 1969 Harlem music festival is a brilliant cultural and artistic feat; theaters reopen doors.


For the last fifteen months, Oregonians have pined for the irreplaceable communal experience of going to movie theaters. We’ve missed the popcorn, the endless trailers, the Dolby rumble, the IMAX imagery, and, of course, the movies. This week has been a potent reminder that we also miss the air conditioning.

Nina Simone performs 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

It seems fortuitous, then, that theaters, along with most other businesses, are free to return to full capacity this week. Each venue remains free to impose its own capacity limits. For example, the Hollywood Theatre, which is finally reopening to the public on July 2, will remain 50 percent full at most for the time being.

It’s also fortuitous, or at least appropriate, that the two best films opening this week in Portland are hot in several senses of the word.

Hundreds of thousands of people attended a star-studded music festival in the turbulent summer of 1969 in the state of New York, creating a countercultural spectacle that would seem impossible to forget. And yet, unlike its counterpart, Woodstock, it was. Just throwing this out there, but the difference between the way three days of peace and love on Max Yasgur’s farm have been memorialized in pop culture and the way the Harlem Cultural Festival taking place the same summer downstate has been remembered is as stark as black and white.

The priceless footage of the former was turned into an epic, three-hour, Oscar-winning documentary within a year. The equally priceless footage of the latter has sat in cans for over fifty years, only now emerging as the feel-good movie of the season, Summer of Soul. Spearheaded and directed by Amir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots, it’s a sizzle reel of sensational sights and sounds, featuring Sly & the Family Stone, Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight, and the incomparable Stevie Wonder. They’re all incomparable, really, as are B.B. King, The Fifth Dimension, The Chambers Brothers, and the great Mahalia Jackson.

“Just throwing this out there, but the difference between the way three days of peace and love on Max Yasgur’s farm have been memorialized in pop culture and the way the Harlem Cultural Festival taking place the same summer downstate has been remembered is as stark as black and white.”

Performance-wise, three stand out. The opening scene is of a 19-year-old Wonder engaged in one of the most precise, primal, drum solos you’ll see, a vivid reminder that he stands as one of the most convincing arguments for the existence of innate musical genius. Near the midpoint, a montage of gospel performances peaks when the Rev. Jesse Jackson introduces Mahalia Jackson, who duets with Staples on the hymn Take My Hand, Precious Lord in a tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who, of course, had been assassinated just the previous year. And even given the lineup listed above, Thompson would have been a fool not to have closed with Simone pounding out a literally furious rendition of Backlash Blues.

Gladys Knight & the Pips perform 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

In between, there are present-day reminiscences and appreciations from the Rev. Al Sharpton, Knight, Marilyn McCoo of The Fifth Dimension, and an assortment of audience members, each of which sheds light on the affirming significance of the event in the moment, even if it was overshadowed by the gathering in Bethel that August. Another reason that the Harlem Festival didn’t create as many headlines as Woodstock may be that it took place over a series of Saturdays, rather than concentrating its glory in one messily photogenic weekend.


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It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the most shocking moment in Summer of Soul comes when New York Mayor John V. Lindsay stops by for an on-stage visit. The sight of a Republican politician making an appearance at a Black cultural festival of this magnitude, and being welcomed with open arms, is so foreign to our current reality that it may require explanation for some viewers. (“You see, there used to be people known as liberal Republicans…”)

Full disclosure requires me to point out that Summer of Soul will be streaming on Hulu as of July 3. But—and this is the first time I’ve made this pitch—if you’re fully vaccinated, it’s time to get back to the movies, and it’s hard to imagine a better, more uplifting experience to christen that long-awaited homecoming. (Playing at the Hollywood Theater and Cinema 21)


Riley Keough (left) stars as “Stefani” and Taylour Paige (right) stars as “Zola” in director Janicza Bravo’s ZOLA, an A24 Films release. Cr. Anna Kooris / A24 Films

DECIDEDLY LESS UPLIFTING, BUT RAUCOUSLY ENTERTAINING nonetheless, Zola is the best piece of audiovisual art ever inspired by Twitter content (easily swiping the crown from the 2010 William Shatner sitcom $#*! My Dad Says). Specifically, it relates a saga first told in a viral 148-tweet thread back in 2017 by Aziah “Zola” King that chronicled a misbegotten road trip with a cast of increasingly unlikeable characters.

Zola (Taylour Paige) is working as a waitress in Detroit when she meets and quickly befriends Stefani (Riley Keough). Both work as strippers, and when Stefani invites Zola on a weekend Florida getaway to work clubs and earn cash, it seems like an opportunity for adventure and income. Accompanied by Stefani’s boyfriend Darrell (Nicholas Braun of Succession) and their initially unnamed roommate (Colman Domingo), they arrive in Tampa and get to work.

From there, as one might imagine, things go rapidly off the rails, most dramatically when Zola finds out that the roommate is in fact Stefani’s pimp, and that Darrell has no idea that his girlfriend is a sex worker. Caught in this dysfunctional triangle with no easy method of escape, Zola tries to cope as best she can, but things eventually go to some pretty dark places.

That said, Zola the movie is flashy, trashy, and never for a second boring. The two leads are fantastic, and Keough expertly walks a tightrope playing a terrible person (white woman who persistently employs an exaggerated Black American accent and has exactly zero scruples) who nonetheless deserves our empathy (trapped in an exploitative situation that has taught her some very unsavory survival skills). Director Janicza Bravo also performs a balancing act, keeping the comic and tragic aspects in harmony.


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With its descent into the dark side of trashy Florida hedonism and its brash encapsulation of Gen-Z road trip energy, Zola is reminiscent of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (with Keough in the James Franco role) and Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (which also co-starred Keough). Still, it’s a unique, self-aware take on a particular slice of post-millennial Americana that also speaks to broader issues of race and gender. Mostly, it’s just a crazy damn story. (Playing at various area theaters)


STREAMING PICK: Mockumentaries are a great genre for filmmakers of limited means and/or experience. Just grab a camera, get into character, and you’re off. For that same reason, there are a lot of terrible ones. Not so with the pleasantly surprising Clairevoyant, starring, co-written, and co-directed by Micaela Wittman. Wittman plays Claire, the twenty-something child of affluent parents, a yoga aficionado who decides one day during Vinyasa Flow to make a documentary about her (clueless) quest for spiritual enlightenment. She hires a cameraman to follow her around as she ineptly pursues nirvana in the hopes that Netflix will pick her movie up and she will become famous. The key here is that Clairevoyant resists mean-spiritedness, both in how it treats Claire and how it depicts the various experts and gurus she peppers with idiotic questions. Even at 87 minutes, it gets a little thin by the end, but for a film with absolutely no public profile, it was an unexpected treat. (Available on demand through various providers).

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Nine Muses Law and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.


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