It was after seven when we got to Booker T. Washington Park at 400 N. High Ave. in Oklahoma City. We—that being myself, a friend, and, of course, my dog Sean—braved the high humidity and hungry mosquitos to see DeadCenter’s exclusive offering, a screening of Questlove’s first documentary Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).
A film about the mostly-forgotten soul festival that took place in Harlem back in summer 1969, it was to start around 9:30 or so, so that gave us a couple of hours to make sure we got a good spot on the moist lawn, have a little leftover food and walk around the still-lighted park to see what was going on that night, especially at the stage way back behind us where music appeared to be coming from.
Walking on the grass that had a solid rain the previous night, Sean and I made our way to the concrete sidewalk and went to the area where there was not only a DeadCenter booth filled with various mementos and such, but a few food trucks and, honestly, the most glamorous portable toilets that I had ever seen; I actually felt bad relieving myself in them. I probably didn’t deserve to.
There was a stage out front where area singer Koolie High—his name a homage to a 1970’s classic flick—performed energetically. While the attendees of his show were few, they at least showed a passionate response, which is better, at least to me; I’d rather have one solid fan than a 1000 bored patrons. Sean and I stood there from a couple of minutes, absorbing his words.
As we made our way back across the field to our spot on the lawn, I realized we weren’t too far from Thunder personnel, made up of mostly members of the drumline, a couple of faceless cheerleaders and the basketball court jesters that routinely attempt to get the crowd on their feet. While they did a good job of motivating much of the audience, when one of the jokers came up to rouse Sean, he shot me a look of “Get this guy out of here…”
The Thunder was there to premiere a short film about the night they bravely canceled a basketball game because of Covid; to be honest, I wasn’t all that into it like many in the audience were. I came here to see a film about musicians in their atmosphere, not to hear team owners and local politicians talk about what a wholly selfless and utterly brave decision they made.
After a few minutes, thankfully, as darkness settled onto the horizon, after a brief message from Questlove on the making of the film, Summer of Soul began with a stirring number from a young Stevie Wonder, putting the filmgoers in the proper mood for a piece of musical history. With performances from the likes of Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips and, most soul-stirringly, Nina Simone, if you weren’t moving some part of your body during the movie, you were probably dead.
The thing about this film that really put it in perspective for me, however, was the fact that the original reels from the concert hadn’t been seen in over fifty years, these concerts of Black (and Latino) positivity pushed down and held back, more than likely because of the eye-piercing view of racial togetherness in a time when there wasn’t supposed to be any.
With the sparse crowd that made it to the end, as we were leaving, I have to admit I felt energized by the film.
My shirt and pants damp with sweat, as I sat in the darkness, I knew that, even if it’s not recognized tomorrow, next week or even next year, somebody somewhere will be inspired by something you write, something you say, and, most importantly, something you do; it will inspire someone 20, 30, 50 years from now—maybe we’re doing all these things for the next generation…maybe I’m doing the right thing after all.