“Bad” and Beautiful Muhammad Ali Shines in ‘Soul Power’

“Rumble in the Jungle,” the classic 1974 Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman boxing match in Kinshasa, Zaire, was the subject of Leon Gast’s excellent 1996 documentary When We Were Kings, one of the must-see films for anyone remotely interested in Muhammad Ali – or boxing for that matter.  The match was also the impetus for Zaire ’74, a Pan African multi-artist concert that accompanied the match. Celia Cruz, the Spinners, Fania All-Stars, Bill Withers, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, Sister Sledge and more were part of a lineup headlined by Soul Brother # 1, James Brown. In 2008, director Jeff Levy-Hinte shaped performance and behind-the-scenes footage into the documentary Soul Power.

Muhammad Ali, courtesy Getty Images.

Muhammad Ali, courtesy Getty Images.

While the musicians are absolutely amazing (Celia Cruz’s raucous, sexy performance with her sprawling band is itself worth the price of everything,) it’s the frequent cutaways to Muhammad Ali – interacting with everyday African people; blisteringly dismantling a white reporter’s utopian race rhetoric, and calling out entertainers and athletes who don’t dedicate themselves to the uplift of their people – who polishes the film’s political edge until it gleams.

The film is especially relevant right now because it beautifully captures Ali in a densely layered context where Black music, athletics, and politics all co-mingle, spinning from a thread of urgency about the state of Black life. While the film is full of vintage Ali one-liners (“When you bad,” he exclaims early in the film, “you can do what you want to do,”) it also showcases the way he used his wit and intellect for heady political analysis rendered in terms accessible to the lay person. The film is a little slow to really start – the first twenty minutes or so are bogged down with capturing the nightmarish logistics of launching the concert – but once Ali and the various musicians are given center screen, Soul Power soars.

Top image is from Soul Power.