In 1974, some of the biggest acts from North America joined world musicians Celia Cruz, Hugh Masekela, and more for a concert in Zaire to run adjacent with a rematch bout between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman. Dubbed “Rumble in the Jungle,” it was one of the most historically significant events in African American history. This cultural pilgrimage was an early impetus to the “African Consciousness” that brought a new, strong sense of heritage pride to the African-American people.
As it is with so many cultural and political milestones in the history of minorities in America, there was a marked lack of visual references to the event. Whereas it took less than a year to get the iconic imagery of the predominantly white Woodstock music and arts festival into movie theaters, the footage shot for the “Rumble in the Jungle” remained in the vault, supposedly due to ownership issues, until 1996, when the film “When We Were Kings” was released. But that film was mostly about the fight, with very little coverage of the concert.
Now, more than another decade has passed before those performances have come to light in “Soul Power,” Had all of this been released in 1975, it might have been as loud a rallying cry for African Americans as Woodstock was to the white counter-culture. Seen today, it is mostly nostalgia, but still somewhat vital as a missing page of American history.
Some of the highlights include B.B. King’s working on his setlist before going on stage, Ali boasting of being the greatest black man on the planet, James Brown proving that he is the hardest working man in show business, and Bill Withers showing a musical depth that wasn’t always apparent on his top 40 recordings. There are also performances from such rarely seen acts as Celia Cruz and Big Black, and Sister Sledge.
On the downside, there is way too much behind the scenes footage and not enough concert material. With the exception of James Brown, each performer is limited to one song. Even so, the film communicates just how huge this undertaking was, and its significance, not just for the African Americans, but for the world.
Note: The first major concert of American performers in Africa happened in 1971, when Roberta Flack, Wilson Picket, Les McCann and others put on a 14 hour concert in Ghana. A film of this concert, “Soul II Soul,” was released soon thereafter, and is available on DVD.
The historic Wattstax concert, which drew 100,000 people to the L.A. Coliseum on the last day of the annual Watts Summer Festival in 1972, is another musical event that was buried under the Woodstock hoopla.
Much more than a concert film, the musical performances (which include Rufus Thomas, the Bar-Kays and Albert King) take a back seat to coverage of the overall event, which powerfully communicates the excitement of the ’70s black power movement.
The film opens with Jesse Jackson leading the crowd in the Black National Litany. The “I am somebody” refrain is a stirring overture to the celebration.
In addition to the Coliseum performances, cinematographer John Alonzo took his predominantly black camera crew to locations around Watts for additional musical footage. From the Emotions’ sweet harmonies on “Peace Be Still” at the Friendly Will Church to Little Milton singing the blues on the railroad tracks in the shadow of the Watts Tower, these segments help director Mel Stuart show the broader context in which this concert took place.
Commentary from shockingly outspoken Watts residents on topics ranging from revolution to infidelity are a vital part of the documentary, as are the several Richard Pryor monologues upon which the film is structured.
One of the concert’s memorable moments finds Thomas inviting the audience down from the stands so they can “Do the Funky Chicken” on the lawn. When the song is over, all but one person dutifully return to their seats. Thomas’ comic humiliation of the straggler is a bravely hilarious exhibition of crowd control.