There is synergy and yet contrast between wealth vs. poverty, origins vs. present day and America vs. Africa. 'Soul Power' is not just a festival documentary, it is so much more.
Screening on the 20th of September at Melkweg, tickets available here.
Honestly, you can’t have a more powerful start to a film than with the royal decree of Mr Dynamite, the earth-shattering legend, “Soul Brother Number 1” James Brown landing on stage. Yet halt in your tracks because if you think that’s powerful, then cut to the second scene where Don King and Muhammed Ali are sparring with words, but we’re not done here. Follow all of that with Zaire women dressing their children in Raffia, taking us back to the core of where this power first originated, Africa. Now that’s what I call an entrance.
In 1974 Hugh Masekela and Stewart Levine had gallant dreams to organise a festival in Zaire, Africa. Marrying the greatest sporting event in history, George Foreman vs. Muhammed Ali and the most affluent performers from Afro-America and Africa (James Brown, BB King, Miriam Makemba, Bill Withers, The Spinners) upon their common homeland. Soul Power, directed by Jeffrey Levy-Hinte is that Festival's documentary.
Although you believe the focus of this film is to be about the big fight of the century and the dance music of its time, Jeffrey instead gives us more insight into the dance and fight of other battles and relationships. There is synergy yet contrast between wealth vs. poverty, origins vs. present day and America vs. Africa. 'Soul Power' is not just a festival documentary, it is so much more.
We see divine Congolese women in the marketplace contrasted with overweight white construction workers setting up for the festival depicting their differing versions of preparation. We get an insight into days before the festival in the NY Office, where New Yorker promoters push through to make the festival happen, but there’s a blissfully ignorant air amongst the water cooler. Cut to visions of the people of Zaire on the streets in celebration, their music followed by the disorganised disaster of the festival.
“Flies are faster here than they are in the States… in America, they eat too much. They’re lazy. They got too much to eat. These flies stay hungry and fast”. - Muhammad Ali
A particularly epiphanic scene for me is when Muhammad Ali sits on a bench attempting with acute reflexes to battle a Congolese fly. “Flies are faster here than they are in the States… in America, they eat too much. They’re lazy. They got too much to eat. These flies stay hungry and fast”. This foreshadowing between The Champ and an insect speaks volumes of what this film is all about. The comparison of American privilege and laziness vs. African empowerment against all adversity.
We see further how adversity is addressed by two differing subjects, 36 hours until the festival happens with countless issues hovering in the Zairean air and yet the white festival Investor and Promoter sit at a resort having a long boozy lunch. Same location, we find Congolese locals working amongst them as waiters, the discrepancy of wealth, affects of colonialism and class encapsulated all in one scene. It ensues with James Brown and Don King discussing money and liberation.
“When a man is doing something that involves Black people, to generate and motivate them, you create dollars and dollars is what this thing is about. You can not get liberated [when you are] broke.” - James Brown.
Jeffrey builds a nervousness for the viewers but somehow once The Spinners get on stage and sing 'One of a Kind (Love Affair)', the fears and worries just melt away. “I wanna thank all the Black people that it took to make it possible to come back home” - Philippé Wynne, The Spinners. We see a flip in the script once the festival starts, beautiful cultural exchanges in the greenroom between the American and Congolese women, teaching them how to do the Soul Train style dance move ‘The Bump’, “It took me five years to learn the bump and she gets it in one second”. There’s this direct admiration and realisation from the American entertainers how empowered the African people are, that they’re the creators, the originators of their musical skills, cultural strength and dance talent.
“I wanna thank all the Black people that it took to make it possible to come back home” - Philippé Wynne, The Spinners.
They interview Bill Withers “So we’ve evolved from one corner, they’ve evolved in the other corner and now we’re gonna come back and listen to each other and I know I’m gonna go home knowing something…Someone asked me what are you gonna bring back? Are you gonna bring back any souvenirs? …what I wanna bring back is the feeling”. A perfect summary of how much the artists affect one another in regards to the origin vs. the present.
This film provides insight into one of the more gutsier festivals to be held in the 20th Century but what makes it most fascinating is its insight into power struggles, the effects of colonialism and disempowerment in Africa, and yet also in America. The light side of this film truly shines through with the culturally inspiring exchange between the artists. I give this documentary a Mint (my highest rating), check the Film Condition Board below.