Director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte's documentary Soul Power perhaps works best as a companion piece to Leon Gast's When We Were Kings. That 1996 documentary depicted the famed "Rumble in the Jungle"—the 1974 Heavyweight Championship bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman that took place in Kinshasa, the capital city of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Promoter Don King didn't just put on a fight, though—he, along with Hugh Masekela and Stewart Levine, simultaneously staged a musical festival that showcased both African and African American musicians, and Soul Power is the long-forgotten footage of that festival.
James Brown is the headliner, and he's at the peak of his powers here, but B.B. King and Bill Withers also turn in unforgettable performances. Levy-Hinte elects to let the raw footage stand for itself, without any narration or talking heads. It's a brave choice, and it immerses the audience in the moment: a joyous, one-time celebration of African pride and heritage. But it also robs us of the context of what happened to Zaire in the decades since. Following the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, years of war, famine, and AIDS have decimated the country. Soul Power is steadily focused on the 1974 celebration, though, and all the strutting soul 'n' funk tunes can't help but feel a little like Nero fiddling.