Soul Power


When I was in Africa, this voice came to me and said: “Richard, what do you see?” I said: “I see all types of people.” The voice said: “But, do you see any niggers?” I said: “No.” It said: “Do you know why? ‘Cause there aren’t any.” — Richard Pryor, 1981

In the wake of the cathartic Watts “race riots” in 1965, the black nationalist and civil rights activist Ron Karenga began to assert a new articulation of pan-Africanism as it pertained to Americans. Renaming himself Maulana (Swahili for “tradition”), Karenga sought to re-invigorate the idea of Africanness among those in the black Diaspora, maintaining that black conformity with white majority culture was a form of self-silencing and cultural suicide.

Perhaps his crowning achievement along these lines was the founding of Kwanza in 1966, a week-long celebration of African heritage and culture designed to run parallel with the Christmas season. Such radical views were hardly out of synch with the gathering thrust of nationalist and separatist movements in the second half of the American ’60s, a period which saw an astounding blossoming of minority rights and pride organizations.

By the late ’60s, famous black authors like LeRoi Jones were changing their names to reflect their long-buried African heritage (he became Amiri Baraka in 1967), activists were turning to the concept of “Black Power” as an alternative to the form of cultural integration favoured by Martin Luther King and much of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to this point, athletes were using their moments in the public eye to make statements about racial inequality (the famous bowed-heads-and-raised-fists of two American medalists on the podium at the 1968 Olympics comes to mind), and some musicians were even turning to all-black backing bands in an effort to underline a solidarity with the movements (Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies was read by many as an attempt to become more relevant to black audiences).

Perhaps the greatest avatar of this cultural politics as it played out in the public sphere was famed boxer Muhammad Ali. Into the ’70s, the former heavyweight champion had become a key mouthpiece for Black Power, and had paid dearly for his politics. Stripped of his belt after he refused to serve in Vietnam on racial grounds (“No Viet Cong ever called me nigger”, he famously explained), and radicalized by the ensuing legal battle to clear his record, Ali (who had himself changed his name to reflect his conversion to the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist organization) was widely regarded as a kind of martyr for the cause. As his athletic role waned, his political significance seemed to expand.

So when Ali was pitted against champ George Foreman in a title fight to be held at a stadium in the heart of the Congo (then Zaire) in late summer 1974, there was no mistaking the pan-Africanist political statement behind the event. In what was being dubbed “The Rumble in the Jungle” by budding promoter Don King, these two black men would fight in their “motherland” in front of an audience of Africans. Alongside this event, a concert festival would be staged, uniting black American recording artists with African musicians in a three-day celebration of blackness, of what was being called “soul power”. Headlining the event would be “soul brother number one” himself, James Brown.

Those concerts are the subject of Soul Power, an at-times fascinating document of the efforts to pull together and pull off such a grand spectacle. Employing a cinema verité format, the film weaves in and out of conversations (some of which are somewhat confusing), darting around from scene to scene somewhat haphazardly as we watch the whole thing come together. It’s a long road to the concert, as organizers and artists deal with various problems, surprises, political issues – the fight, as is well known, had to be postponed due to an injury to Foreman, leaving the concert to take place weeks before the main event to which it was meant to support – but the road isn’t always terribly exciting to drive.

The verité format, while offering the exciting vantage of fly-on-the-wall, suffers from its lack of overt direction. While some really interesting things happen onscreen, the viewer is always made to guess at the context – in one scene, Stokely Carmichael (the man who coined the phrase Black Power, no less) appears, greets Ali at a breakfast table, and then is gone. What was he doing there? Was he part of the proceedings? Surely his role must have been significant? If not, why? Anyway, since we can barely see him, and Ali merely mumbles his name in greeting, the average viewer (who is not, for example, a professor of postwar cultural history) will probably miss it.

More annoying (for me, anyway) was the lack of superimposed titles during the concert footage – it is plainly distracting to watch an artist play a tune when you have no idea who it might be. To have to wait for the credits to find out who the performers even were is plainly ridiculous, and not a little alienating. One wonders just how comprehensible this film would be to someone who didn’t have any background knowledge of the events?

Still, it’s impossible not to be taken in by the energy, jubilance, and overall celebratory atmosphere captured in the film. As the concert leads inexorably to James Brown’s wild-eyed performance, the momentum builds with each musical number. The crowd – 80,000 strong by some reports – is on its feet, clapping, smiling, singing along to a language not its own. The performers, many of them clearly shell-shocked by the experience of playing to such a huge audience of their brothers and sisters, in the parlance of the time, demonstrate such an infectious zeal as to really lift the sometimes merely mediocre music to the stratosphere. While one finds it tough to recommend the lengthy and confusing first 45-minutes of the film, the second half (the concert portion) is irresistible.

I am… Somebody, chants the crowd in one of Rev Jesse Jackson’s favourite call-and-response lines, a summary of the basic themes of the Pan-African program. I am… Somebody! Thrilling stuff.

RATING 6 / 10