In 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire, Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman for boxing’s heavyweight championship of the world. The heavily favored Foreman, a huge puncher thought to have too much power for the smaller Ali, pounded on Ali, who used his rope-a-dope technique to tire Foreman before stunning the boxing world and knocking the champ out to regain the title. The fight was the culmination of an unprecedented months-long celebration in Zaire, when American moneymaking interests (embodied in the larger than life persona of boxing promoter Don King) mixed with the totalitarian dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko to create a once in a lifetime event. What isn’t widely known is that the fight was intended to cap a weekend-long music festival that would bring together black African and American musicians for the first time. When George Foreman received a cut to his eye in training, however, the fight was pushed back six weeks. The music festival, which depended upon the participation of hundreds of artists and technicians, was unable to be moved and, six weeks prior to the big fight, the lights went up on an amazing weekend of musical exchange between black artists from around the world. A film about the run up to the fight, When We Were Kings, stands alongside Hoop Dreams as probably the finest sports documentary of all time, a one in a million movie that captures the magic of Muhammad Ali and this historic moment with all of the drama of great theater. Now, finally, the music gets its due with Jeff Levy-Hinte’s absolutely awesome new documentary Soul Power.
The film, which essentially plays like a feel-good version of the Albert and David Maysles’ Gimme Shelter, is a rare document of a very particular moment in history, when the Black Power movement, although well past its prime in the late 1960’s, had captured the imagination of musicians and writers, athletes and capitalists alike. Levy-Hinte’s film conveys the feeling and texture of the times with deep insight, showing the emotional power that the trip to Zaire held for so many black musicians; men and women who felt as if they were returning to their home for the very first time. At the same time, somewhat disappointingly, the film avoids African politics and the relationship between African and American politics, merely implying the sense of Mobutu’s violence and corruption through shots of his omnipresent portrait. Instead of political history, it is the American musicians who do the majority of the talking and their points of view are a mix of fascination and cliché, of chattering justification and a real, down to earth desire to find a connection with the people and musicians they meet on the streets of Kinshasa.
Jeff Levy-Hinte’s Soul Power
This makes for a far more dramatic, far more engaging look at the ideas behind the event than a simple concert movie might otherwise provide. Instead of the usual pre-concert logistical crises (we get a healthy dose of those) simply followed by performance footage, Levy-Hinte instead chooses to inject the film with the fascinating tension between American bullshit (personified in Don King) and black idealism, artistry and passion (personified by Muhammad Ali and James Brown). The result of this tension is to bring an otherwise impossible context and depth to the performances, showing them not only as incredible feats of artisic achievement and cultural re-connection, but as (and I hesitate to use the word, but what the hell) an expression of soul itself, the embodiment of the moment when black American history and creativity meet an inarticulable sense of personal meaning head-on.
The highlights? Well, every frame of the film, really. But in terms of the artists themselves, Bill Withers’ solo acoustic performance gave me goose bumps. His voice and intensity were overwhelming and, when compared with the glitz and razzle-dazzle of James Brown’s over-the-top performance of The Big Payback (which is presented in a jaw-dropping rendition), Withers was all the more impressive for his emotional clarity and musical simplicity. I also was knocked out by Celia Cruz’s performance; Her voice was like hot caramel, almost otherworldly, and here she is in her prime, tearing it up. But as the movie builds toward a James Brown climax and the feverish chant of “Say It Loud!/ I’m Black and I’m Proud!”, I think it might be impossible not to catch yourself bobbing your head and smiling no matter what you believe about the politics on display.
And speaking of; as the film wound its way toward the end, it was hard for me not to think of Barack Obama and our moment in history, when a black man is representing the Democratic Party as a candidate for President of The United States. Listening to Muhammad Ali, so eloquent and funny, such a disarming blend of anger and joy, describe the reasons why white men and back men couldn’t be considered brothers, I found myself wondering how far the nation has truly come in the last 34 years, how this election is being framed as not about race at all, but about “the issues.” It’s interesting to me to see how much of the character of black identity is absent in our current discussion, which is all the more reason to see and consider the ideas on display in Soul Power. What does it say about our nation when 34 year-old politics and art seem more fresh and alive, more exciting and honest, than what we have today?