“One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”—W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk
Like Wattstax, shot in 1972 at an L.A. Coliseum concert commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Watts riots, emceed by Richard Pryor and headlined by Isaac Hayes, Soul Power is a booty-bumpin’ verité film that illuminates a specific moment in black political culture. Part time capsule, part chronicle of a transatlantic journey to Mother Africa, Soul Power captures the spirit of optimism and celebratory, homeward-bound impulse of notable black and Latin musicians through the backstage banter and energetic performances of its most legendary participants: James Brown, Celia Cruz, Bill Withers, Miriam Makeba, Fania All Stars, the Spinners, B.B. King, and many others. Distilled from 125 hours of archived footage, the movie documents “Zaire ’74,” a three-day music festival held in Kinshasa on the eve of the “Rumble in the Jungle,” Muhammad Ali’s famously seismic title bout with then-heavyweight champion George Foreman, previously anatomized in Leon Gast’s Oscar-winning When We Were Kings. Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, a prolific producer (Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, Mysterious Skin) and an editor on Gast’s film, mines the leftovers, reconstructing a star-studded event that languished in the vaults for two decades.
Since Levy-Hinte adheres to verité dogma—there are no voiceovers or retrospective interviews, and very few intertitles to provide context—the sociopolitical milieu of this footage is worth briefly elucidating. In 1974, the groovy hippie idealism of the Sixties counterculture had all but vanished in a druggie haze of self-destructive decadence. The most eloquent voices of the student antiwar movement, cowed by Nixon’s “silent majority,” had retreated to academia, the halls of Congress, or the hideaway bunkers of the Weather Underground. Woodstock, the era-defining film captured “three days of peace and music,” while Albert Maysles’s Gimme Shelter zeroed in, just a few months later, on a social movement in the throes of murderous self-annihilation. But the black-consciousness movement was in full flower around the world, emboldened in the U.S. by the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert F. Kennedy, the fever pitch of the busing crisis, Black Panther community activism, and the struggles of various liberation movements in African countries.
W. E. B. DuBois had written presciently at the turn of the century of the “double consciousness” that defined the experience of postslave populations. The concept informed his dream of global cooperation among peoples of color, and took root in the modern civil-rights era, when continued bloodshed on home soil led many black intellectuals and activists to embrace Afrocentric doctrines emphasizing the continuity of cultural traditions among the black diaspora. “Soul” was the colloquial name given to this sensibility. “Zaire ’74,” though long faded in our historical memory, was a flash point for such ideas, mounted to project positive images of blackness and reaffirm the special status of Africa-derived cultural forms. “I need to do my thing,” Brown belts out over the opening titles of Soul Power, before we see him enact a dazzling display of shimmying, cut-me-loose footwork as the band poises to launch into a funky, set-opening horn-blast. Music has always been a vehicle for expressions of discontent, but for many black artists of the time, it was also a pulpit for testifying to the liberatory spirit of self-realization. Brown didn’t just sing “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” he embodied it in every performance.
Click here to read the rest of Damon Smith’s review of Soul Power.