Last night Stranger Than Fiction screened Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte's 2008's documentary Soul Power. The film taps into a wealth of once lost archival footage shot at the Zaire '74 concert. The 3 day event was initially organized to accompany the Muhammad Ali, George Foreman title fight, entitled "Rumble in the Jungle" in the country which is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As many of us know, that fight didn't happen until over a month after Zaire '74, due Foreman's postponement (injury above his eye). The bout delay didn't prevent the concert though or the filming of it.
Shot by some of the most renouned cinematographers in documentary film, such as Albert Maysles and Paul Goldsmith, they captured the promotion of the concert in New York City, the streets and rural areas and people of Zaire, the amazingly wild looking flight of all the American artists traveling to Africa (many for the first time) and of course the concert preparation and festival itself. The amount of footage is remarkable and shot absolutely beautifully on 16mm film and audio tape.
During the post Q&A, filmmaker Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte (pictured here, seated right), was first exposed to the footage as one of the editors on When We Were Kings (1996) said there were about 177 hours shot to cover Zaire '74. The festival was originally conceived by South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and record producer Stewart Levine. It was promoted by the infamous Don King. From what I got out of the Q&A, the fight's postponement effected the festival's expected ticket sales and the company eventually went belly-up, along with plans to televise the event. As a result the footage sat around until When We Were Kings was made 22 years later and another 12 for Soul Power.
The filmmaker Leon Gast, who directed When We Were Kings, and also worked on the original shoot, retained ownership of all that material that never made it to air. When Were Kings shows some of the music festival, but Soul Power is all about the festival and the cultural significance of that concert at that time. Just 11 years after a film like Drew Associates, Crisis (1963), (which chronicles President, John F. Kennedy and Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy battle Alabama Governor, George Wallace over whether to desegregate the University of Alabama) the racial politics of America are more than palpable in Soul Power.
Soul Power is expertly edited by David A. Smith. Smith uses the textured cinematography to his advantage by weaving life in Zaire, with the progression of the artists and festival grounds as it nears the opening night, to the incredible performances. As Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte said, the shooters were just unapologetically moving around onstage in shorts and tee shirts, capturing ample close-ups of artists during their performances. We see The Spinners, B.B. King, Bill Withers, Celia Cruz, Miriam Makeba and of course the J.B. All Stars and the God Father of Soul (it even says so on his belt) in all their sweaty glory. Some of the most compelling scenes though are between the African-American musicians and the African people connecting, finding solidarity between one another as a culture and as individuals.
This film is so much more than a music documentary. It really realizes the American cultural climate of the times. Times that now seem so distant in one respect and really not so far away in another. I looked it up and conveniently, Soul Power is available on Blu-ray DVD and Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte promises great extras like performances by Sister Sledge and more.