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DOC TALK

Doc Talk: A soulful summer, borderland blues, and a punk priestess

Gladys Knight & the Pips in "Summer of Soul."Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios

The parenthetical subtitle of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s “Summer of Soul (… or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (2021) about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival comes from Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 song/poem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Scott-Heron didn’t take the stage at this event, which took place in a park in Harlem over the course of six weeks in 1969 and drew 300,000 people. But his song proved prophetic of the festival’s fate.

Hal Tulchin, who shot the shows with five video cameras, could not get anyone interested in a film about what he called “The Black Woodstock” — the white version was taking place around the same time 100 miles north and would overshadow the Harlem affair, spawning a hit movie and soundtrack album. The festival also had to compete with the Apollo 11 mission and the landing of the first men on the moon. So Tulchin’s footage was shelved and largely forgotten until Questlove learned about it, disinterred it, and edited it into one of the best concert movies ever made and a contender for the 2022 best documentary Oscar.

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The lineup alone warrants accolades, with a spectrum of music ranging from the blues of B.B. King, to the gospel of Mahalia Jackson and the Staples Singers, the jazz of Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone, and the psychedelic pop of Sly and the Family Stone. More than a playlist of hits, the film also provides insights into a volatile era in American history. The Vietnam War raged and racial tensions simmered. Just the previous year Harlem had erupted into rioting following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Some surmised that the city, which sponsored the event, was hoping to cool down racial tensions. If so, that did not tone down the outspokenness of the performers who bluntly confronted the issue with their music and comments.

Questlove does not just set the record straight about a significant moment in Black history but also questions what history is. If 300,000 people are swept up in a transformative cultural experience and it’s not televised, did it happen? That’s what one of the interviewees who attended as a young boy wonders when shown footage of the climactic performance of “I Want to Take You Higher” by Sly and the Family Stone. “It’s funny,” he says. “You put a memory away and sometimes you don’t know if it’s real.”

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“Summer of Soul (… or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” screens at the Somerville Theatre Jan 29-30. Go to www.somervilletheatre.com/repertory-programs. It also screens at the Brattle Theatre on Feb. 3 at 5:15 p.m. and 8 p.m. Go to brattlefilm.org/movies/summer-of-soul-or-when-the-revolution-could-not-be-televised.

Migrant misery

At the start of Jeff Bemiss and Lisa Molomot’s “Missing in Brooks County” (2020), a man in a pickup drives through brush and sees vultures in the sky. He heads to the spot they are circling and comes across the forlorn corpse of a young man. Was he murdered?

But the driver’s resignation suggests that this is not an unusual discovery. He’s Eddie Canales, director of the South Texas Human Rights Center in Brooks County, Texas, near the Mexican border. His organization helps the desperate migrants crossing this parched wasteland in search of a new life, by putting out water stations for them, and when they find those who don’t make it, like the unfortunate soul mentioned above, they track down the next of kin. Helping is Kate Spradley, a forensic anthropologist who brings a team of her Texas State University students into the county’s badlands to recover remains and take them to a lab for identification.

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Family members of a man who disappeared after attempting a border crossing hang a poster in "Missing in Brooks County."Molomot/Bemiss

Local rancher and veterinarian Michael Vickers, on the other hand, wants to discourage those crossing and destroys the water stations that Canales sets up. He thinks that if the trespassers are thirsty there’s plenty of water in his cistern — a quick cut shows a pool of water layered in scum and abuzz with flies. He doesn’t trust Canales and suspects him of human trafficking and drug smuggling. He and his paramilitary group of volunteers have him on their radar.

Meanwhile, Omar Roman has lost touch with his brother Homero, who had been previously deported back to Mexico but decided to try his luck again. He disappeared while making the crossing. Another refugee, Juan Maceda, heading north to escape the gangs and violence in Mexico, has also gone missing in Brooks County. The men’s families turn to Canales for help in finding them, but the odds are long and the vultures are well fed.

“Missing in Brooks County” makes its broadcast premiere on PBS’s “Independent Lens” on Jan. 31. Go to www.pbs.org/independentlens/documentaries/missing-in-brooks-county.

Plastic inevitable

Part English and part Somali and raised in poverty in Brixton, Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, the subject of Celeste Bell and Paul Sng’s “Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché” (2021), was one of the few people of color to front a British rock band.

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In the mid-1970s, after watching the Sex Pistols perform in a nearly empty venue, Elliott-Said figured she could do that, put an ad in the paper for musicians, changed her name, and formed the group X-Ray Spex.

Poly StyreneBBC Arena

She was 19. Driven by her powerful vocals and lacerating lyrics about anomie, the band in 1977 broke through with the punk anthem “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” They headed to New York, performed at CBGB, and immersed themselves in the punk scene. But something about the Big Apple didn’t agree with Poly. She saw it as both beguiling and horrifying, epitomizing her abhorrence for and attraction to decadent consumerism and synthetic commodities. Then, after a performance in Doncaster, Yorkshire, she saw a pink UFO in the sky and lost her mind.

Bell, Poly’s daughter, decided to make the film as a way to come to terms with her relationship with her mother, who died of cancer at 53 in 2011. Her own story takes up much of the film, and for good reason. It is a wild ride, including a childhood spent in the Bhaktivedanta Manor in the Hertfordshire countryside after her mother joined the Hare Krishnas.

“Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché” screens at the Brattle Theatre on Feb. 2 at 7 p.m. and will be available on demand beginning Feb. 4. Go to www.polystyrenefilm.net/release.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.

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