Movies

Spotting Yourself in Summer of Soul

The Oscar-favorite documentary was a surreal experience for people who looked at the screen and realized: “Oh, that’s me.”

A shot of the crowd at the festival in the movie Summer of Soul, with insets of close-ups on Karen-Cox Greene, Joy Birdsong, and Terrence York (with his choir).
Karen-Cox Greene, Joy Birdsong, and Terrence York each show up for a few seconds in Summer of Soul, but those seconds meant a lot to some people. Screenshot via Hulu

With Summer of Soul, his documentary about 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival, director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson set out to popularize the story of a music festival sometimes known as “Black Woodstock” that for years has been overshadowed in history books by whiter concerts. He’s succeeded: The acclaimed movie is the front-runner to take home an Oscar on Sunday, and it gained uncommon exposure for a documentary when it aired on primetime television in February. (It’s now available on Hulu and Disney+.)

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But in the months since the movie came out last summer, a small subset of viewers who sat down to watch it were greeted with more than just never-before-seen footage of artists like Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone: They discovered never-before-seen footage of themselves, family members, or friends.

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One such viewer was Karen Cox-Greene, a 66-year-old now living in Florida. “I used to tell people all the time, I went to a free concert, and I saw Stevie Wonder,” Cox-Greene told me. But it was just a memory—until a friend from high school messaged her and asked her if she had been at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, because she thought she had spotted her in a documentary.

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“And then I looked at it and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s me!’ ” she said. Cox-Greene saw herself at 13 in the crowd during footage of Wonder’s set in the film, along with her cousin and a friend.

“I was jumping up and down,” Cox-Greene said. “I cannot believe that was me.”

During an appearance on Late Night With Seth Meyers, Questlove spoke about hearing similar stories on social media from people who’d watched the movie, others who managed to ID themselves or a brother or a great-grandmother on screen. “That to me is my favorite part of this whole process,” he said. It’s an echo of one of the most moving parts of the film, which is witnessing artists who appeared in the concert series back in 1969 watch footage of their performances for the first time, 50 years later.

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It also happened to Joy Birdsong, a 60-year-old librarian in Brooklyn, who appears in the beginning of the movie as a 7-year-old with one of her sisters sitting with some other children. She found out she would be in the movie before she even saw it, from a television segment. “I watch CBS Sunday Morning every week,” she said. “It’s what we grew up doing. We have a brownstone in Brooklyn. I live on the top floor, my older sister lives on the middle floor, and my mom lives on bottom floor, and we all simultaneously saw it. I started crying. It was an out-of-body experience. I went downstairs to my mom, who had seen it also. She looks at me, she goes, ‘Did you … ?’ We were just like, ‘Oh, my God!’ My sister texted me, ‘Wait, was that us?’ The whole house was like, ‘I think that was us.’ ”

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While Birdsong and her sisters couldn’t agree about which of them appeared in the video—“It’s in dispute which sister is behind me. I’m the one that’s in the front, but it’s either the younger or older sister in back of me”—they agreed on the power of the moment: “It was confirmation that my parents did things with us that we loved to do,” Birdsong said. “I remember that day being so beautiful, so loving, the music was wonderful. It reminded me of walking to my grandparents’ house. Both of them are gone. My father is gone. Ooh, I’m tearing up now. So it just brought back so many memories. It was overwhelming.”

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For a generation of people who haven’t grown up with the ability to take endless photos and videos of themselves, discovering something like this is especially meaningful. “To see yourself as a child,” as Birdsong put it, “I was explaining to my daughter, I was like, ‘Look, I shot footage of you every step you took.’ My parents did not have a video camera. I’ve never seen myself move as a child. It was just me sitting there, like clearly me. My daughter’s like, ‘Oh yes, you had a big head, same big head.’ ”

Cox-Greene couldn’t recall specifics of the day, like how she ended up at the concert. “I honestly don’t know how I got there. I lived in Queens. My cousin was 14, I was 13, and my friend Debbie was 15. How did we get to Harlem, and do our parents know that we even went there?” Nor could she remember how she ended up so close to the stage. “How did I get to the front row?” she said. “Probably just weaseled my way up. As a New Yorker, that’s what you do. And we probably got there early.”

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Birdsong did recall a few specific details. “I actually remember the exact outfits we had on that day, ’cause I loved them,” Birdsong said. She and her sisters were dressed alike—”we dressed alike a lot of times”—with their hair in bows and in dresses that had “little frills on the edges and they tied in the back and they had matching shorts underneath. I just thought they were so cute.”

A triptych of images of Karen in the crowd, Terrence on stage with the choir, and Joy sitting with her sister and other children.
Karen, Terrence, and Joy’s star moments Screenshot via Hulu
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As special as it was to spot themselves in the movie, some who watched it had the perhaps even stranger experience of recognizing a loved one who’s no longer living. That was the case for Ray Dennis, who lives in California and runs a marketing consultancy. As a music buff and someone who’s worked with cultural festivals, Dennis said he knew he wanted to watch the movie as soon as he heard about it. But it wasn’t until he was mid-viewing and he saw the Edwin Hawkins Singers, a gospel group, come out that he realized a close family friend of his was right there on stage.

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“When I saw that they were on there, then I was looking,” Dennis said. “I was like, ‘Let me see if I can see him.’ ” “Him” was Terrence York, an old friend of Dennis’ mother’s who went on to be a kind of mentor to Dennis, especially in his role as a minister at the church Dennis attended growing up in Berkeley. “He had a really major impact on my life.”

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Anyone else might have missed York: “He was just one of the male singers, he wasn’t a soloist or anything like that. So it was kind of hard to find him. But he also has a very distinct look. He’s fair-skinned and has kind of straight hair. I knew it was him. There’s nobody else—he’s like 5’5, 5’6, he’s a very distinct-looking person, so I know that that was him.”

“It was surreal and it was a little—not really creepy, but it was almost kind of like a ghost or something,” Dennis said. “I’d seen photos, but to see a video of someone who’s passed, it was just an interesting sensation, but it was not negative. I felt really good about seeing him. I loved the film, but when I saw that, that kind of just blew me away.”

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A lot of people probably would have liked to have similar experiences. Birdsong, for example, was gratified to spot herself in the movie, but lamented a little that her parents weren’t visible in it too. “You don’t see my parents, which makes me a little sad, but you know,” she said.

Cox-Greene, for her part, could only be grateful on behalf of a certain 13-year-old girl who didn’t exactly have permission to be at the concert that day when she reflected on the footage: “Thank God it was lost for so long, because then my parents would have found out sooner.”

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