The legendary 1974 “Rumble In The Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman is the gift that keeps giving. Decades after Ali shocked the world by beating Foreman, the 1996 documentary When We Were Kings picked up an Oscar for its evocative chronicle of the event. Audiences were left wondering how such great period footage could go unseen for so long, and why the other centerpiece of Don King’s super-spectacle—a “black Woodstock” featuring a bevy of top acts—didn’t merit a documentary of its own.
Wonder no more. James Brown, B.B. King, and a dazzling array of top African, Afro-Cuban, and African-American talent finally gets its own solo spotlight in Soul Power. Where When We Were Kings used present-day interviews with famous folks like Norman Mailer to provide historical context, Soul Power opts for a cinéma vérité approach that lets the performances speak for themselves. So instead of having a talking head pontificate windily on the historical significance of James Brown, director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte (an editor on When We Were Kings) simply shows the man at the height of his powers, looking for all the world like Prince Valiant’s lost soul brother, working up a sweat performing “Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud).”
The star-studded festival was a stirring affirmation of black pride and international brotherhood, but it was also an opportunistic collaboration between the most infamous promoter in boxing (Don King) and a murderous dictator (Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko) out to improve his country’s image. So while it’s awash in giant-afroed idealism, there’s a ruthless pragmatism lurking just under the surface. Soul Power combines electrifying performances from King, Brown, and The Spinners with behind-the-scenes footage of the performers in Zaire and the always-magnetic Muhammad Ali goofing around. Contemporary interviews might have given the festivities a more nuanced perspective, but Soul Power works fabulously as both a concert film and a time capsule of a time and place when gods of black masculinity joined forces to make an international statement of togetherness. The lofty talk about the events’ high ideals might sound like self-serving spin coming from King, but Brown’s sweaty, powerhouse climactic closing performance renders them thrillingly concrete.