Archive for Delta blues

Two Of My Favorite Flicks

Posted in Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on September 21, 2009 by playthell

On  Cadillac Records

 cadillac-records-movie-poster

 

Wow! An Instant Classic

 Ever so often a movie comes along that captures the spirit of an age, Parkwood Pictures’ Cadillac Records is such a movie. A period piece set in the racially tumultuous era between the end of the great depression and the outbreak of World War II in the early 1940’s, and the turbulent 1960’s when the walls of segregation – which had defined the lives and art of the bluesmen in fundamental ways – came tumbling down, we follow the lives, loves and musical careers of the legendary Mississippi bluesmen who created the “Delta Blues.’  And one of the many achievements of this remarkable movie is the way it shows how their sound was the bedrock upon which a multi-billion dollar industry was built, as the musical styles that became world famous as Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll, and Hard Rock all evolved from these blues roots – what the perceptive music critic Robert Palmer calls “Deep Blues” in his authoritative book by that name.

 As in any historical movie the sets, costumes, language, etc play a critical role in the ability of the film to transport us back in time.  But the ultimate time machine is the music they played back then. The much celebrated Afro-American novelist Ralph Ellison, reflecting on the birth of Be-bop in Harlem’s “Minton’s Play House,” observed: “Music gives resonance to memory.”  And as this movie is about the migration of Mississippi country blues musicians to the great city of Chicago, we have a treasure trove of sound portraits that mirror their journey.

 As a student and teacher of history I am intensely interested in historical drama and fictions.   I am especially thrilled when I see another important slice of black life successfully portrayed on the giant silver screen, where it literally becomes larger than life.  And if Woodrow Wilson – a former US President and Princeton history Professor – thought D.W. Griffiths racist propaganda film Birth of a Nation was “history written by lightening,” Cadillac Records is history written with enlightenment. 

 Cadillac Record’s is remarkably candid in portraying the racist social etiquette and oppressive political system of white supremacy that it supported.  And it does so without ever becoming preachy; the play remains the thing, and the imperatives of dramatic art are ever observed.  In this film the muses are served in fine fashion; even while the harsh realities of the sharecropper south where hunger, poverty and random white violence were omnipresent, and the dangerous cities of the north with its seductions of vice and the catharsis of violence,  are graphically portrayed. 

 This film however, does not stop at portraying the most obvious aspects of race prejudice and the discriminatory treatment that results from it, but also looks at questions of class and ethnicity and subtly meditates on how they have shaped the contours of American culture.  There is a richness here that inevitably results when a film maker – who is, at their best, a celluloid dramatist – takes an honest look at the cultural complexity of the United States of America.  For they are sure to find, as our former Mayor David Dinkins elegantly put it: “A gorgeous mosaic.” 

 In the opening scenes of this movie we are given an inside glimpse of what it was like being the poor son of Polish Jewish immigrants in Chicago in the portrayal of a young Leonard Chess.  Convincingly played by Adrien Brody – a talented actor whom I first saw in The Pianist, a movie about the plight of the Polish Jewish community during the German Nazi occupation – Chess is hungry for success in America after the father of the lady he wanted to marry spurned his request for her hand with the pronouncement: “Your father and I are from the same shit hole in Poland.  I didn’t travel all this way to have my daughter marry some schmuck from the same village!” 

On another occasion when Muddy waters and Leonard chess were traveling the back roads of Mississippi by car Muddy asks Chess why his family traveled across the vast oceans from Poland to come to Chicago, Chess replies by asking him why “ yo ass left Mississippi” to come to Chicago?”  This episode alludes to the shared experience of African-Americans and Eastern European Jews who hailed from Poland and the Russian Pale.  For both of them Chicago was a city of refuge and hope as they sought to escape racial discrimination and random violence. It is through the use of such representative anecdotes, accompanied by the employment of artful intelligent visuals, that much of the sociological depth and complexity of this story is simplified and given a human dimension.  And like all good historical dramas, Darnell Martin, the writer and director of this splendid art film, have shown excellent taste and judgment in selecting the right issues and episodes to capture the zeitgeist of the era.

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From a purely artistic point of view this script was a writer’s delight.  The characters that people this flick are the right stuff for the making of legends.  Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, the harmonica virtuoso Little Walter, and the legendary Willie Dixon, composer of blues hits such as “My Babe” and “Hootchie Kootchie Man are all there. These modern day troubadours took the trials and triumphs that mirror the vicissitudes of life universal to the human condition and set them to song – that’s why their music touched and inspired people across racial, ethnic, class, and national boundaries.

This should come as no surprise however, after all, as Albert Murray, the preeminent commentator on the philosophy, esthetics and cultural significance of the blues tells us in his seminal book Stomping the Blues: “The blues as music” is  the antidote to “the blues as such.”  In  other words, while most people who hear the blues outside of its social and  cultural context think of the music as sad, Murray argues that the blues sensibility is just the opposite  of “sack cloth and ashes.”   In fact, as the title of his book suggest, musicians stomp the blues to chase the Blues away.

 All of this is captured marvelously in Cadillac Records and gives it the ring of truth.  It’s insightfulness into the philosophy and esthetics of the blues is clearly on display in the way they portray the lives and personalities of the bluesmen and the milieu in which they thrived.  As Mr. Murray has observed, the blues is more likely to celebrate the joi de vivre  of Afro-American life than to wallow in self-pity and sadness.  Put differently, the blues is party music, the cure for depression.  And the bluesmen in Cadillac Records partied all the time as they created great art that continues to win the hearts of fans all over the world

Jeffry Wright as Muddy Waters Jeffery Wright As Muddy Waters

 

Jeffrey Wright is as good playing Muddy Waters as Jamie Fox was playing Ray Charles, and Jamie won the Academy Award for his performance!”   One can take the measure of an actor’s skill by the way they interpret the subtleties of character, idiosyncratic gestures expressed in body language and nuances of speech.  I didn’t know Muddy Waters like I knew Ray Charles, but I feel the same way about Wright’s portrayal of him as Albert Einstein felt when the Rabbi’s demanded to know if the scientist believed  his theories explained how god created the universe. To wit Einstein replied: “No, but I know that he could have done it that way.” 

 Wright is that convincing in the role.  Having grown up around southern black musicians I am amazed at the accuracy of the portrait of them the actors render in Cadillac Records. It is a tribute to their diligence in preparing for the roles they sought to play.  And anybody who was fortunate enough to hear them interviewed on BET and elsewhere, knows that these great performances were inspired by the actors’ profound respect for their characters.

Cedrick the Entertainer give a solid performance as the level headed Willie Dixon, and Eamonn Walker is sensational as The Howling Wolf, one of the most interesting and original of the Mississippi bluesmen.   A man of imposing stature, Eamonn Walker can go from a smiling geniality to a murderous scowl with a twitch of his face muscles and a gesture from his heavily muscled ebony frame.  When we consider the fact that he is a British actor, Walker’s amazing rendering of backwoods Mississippi speech through a marvelous control of his voice and an amazing ear for nuance distinguishes his performance as a tour de force that stands out in a cast of great performers. 

It is a pity that the academy does not give awards for ensemble acting, because great performances are common fare in this film.  For instance Columbus Short’s portrayal of the innovative harmonica virtuoso Little Walter would certainly qualify as a great performance by any objective measure.   He was like a man possessed by the spirit of a great ancestor and had become one with his subject.  Although I thought Moss Def was miscast as Chuck Berry since he looks nothing like him, Will smith would have been perfect for the part, his performance was splendid.  After a while the physical disparity seemed trivial.

 As any story about great blues musicians must be, the cast of Cadillac Records is male dominated and the narrative is told from the point of view these gun toting, free spirited, libertine song poets.  A great part of the achievement of this film is the way in which it shows how the blues man was a symbol of black male freedom and potency in a society where the full power of the armed state was employed to crush any manifestation of it.

 Having acknowledged the dominance of male concerns and the outstanding performances of the male actors, let me hasten to acknowledge that Gabriel Union, an elegant hot chocolate beauty, revealed the depth of her talents as an actress playing the stoic but earthy wife of the ebullient philanderer Muddy Waters. And it remains true that casting Beyonce Knowles as Etta James was a singular act of genius. Having dominated the pop music charts for several years now, with this moving picture the great singer has come of age as an actress.  Abandoning the glamorous persona that is her stock in trade, Beyonce gained over twenty pounds in order to give authenticity to her performance as the young Etta James – a boozy dope fiend who courted tragedy because of a deep inner-pain that she seemed to almost nurture as the source of her tortured, though profoundly beautiful, art. 

           An Actress Of Substance

       beyonce-as-etta-jame3 Byonce As Etta James

 

This role demonstrates Beyonce’s range as an actress, for she is called upon to recreate emotions that cannot come from her well of experience with the ways of  a dope fiend and bar fly who appears to have occasionally turned tricks when she was just starting out.  In regard to all these tawdry matters, Ms. Knowles’ well is dry.   Hence it is all artifice in the truest sense of the word, for interpreting the complex highly neurotic character that was the youthful Etta James, the illegitimate daughter of the legendary white pool hustler “Minnesota Fats,’ and a black prostitute he hooked up with.  In the film she is obsessed with gaining the recognition of her father, and that is the deepest source of her pain. 

           Beyonce’s performance ranks right up there with Diana Ross’ portrayal of Billie Holliday, another tragic vocal genius, in Lady Sings the Blues, Angela Basset’s rendering of Tina Turner in What’s Love go to do with It?   Jennifer Hudson’s portrait of Florence Ballard in Dream Girls must also be added to this list of great performances by black actresses in bio-pics.   Hudson won the Oscar for her role, and Ms. Ross and Ms. Basset would have won if everybody played fair.  However, unlike the other three ladies Ms. Basset cannot sing so she was forced to act her way through it, just as Halle Barry had done in her powerful portrayal of the  beautiful and superbly gifted Dorothy Dandridge – a role I always thought would have been better suited for Vanessa Williams who, like Dorothy, is a triple threat.  She can sing, dance, and act with seemingly equal facility – and she is brilliant at all three.   

 However the three singers all gave inspired performances in their roles, buoyed by the wonderful repertoire of American song that the role provided.  While I do not intend to make invidious comparisons because I believe that both Ms Hudson and Ms Knowles are great singers – Prima Donna Absoluta’s of the dynamic Gospel/Soul style –I must nevertheless confess that I found Beyonce’s rendition of the Etta James hits ‘At Last” and “I’d Rather Go Blind Baby, Than Watch You Walk Away From Me,” to be without equal.  When she sang “At Last” our spirits were buoyed by thoughts of past loves that now seem perfect, or we reveled in a newly found love; it was a joy.   And when she sang I’d Rather Go Blind” there wasn’t a dry eye in the house…this writers eyes included. It was a bravura performance …Bravo!      

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Playthell Benjamin

Harlem New York

Fall 2008               

 

Soul Power!

 African American Stars Return to the Motherland

soulpower-BB King

Blues Boy King Wailing In the Motherland

Soul Power, a powerful documentary film directed by Jeffery Levy-Hinte, about an extraordinary troupe of musicians from the African Diaspora in the Americas, is the real sound track from the 1974 “ Rumble in the Jungle,” the epic boxing match between Muhammad Ali and the fearsome George Foreman which was recently released as the moving documentary film “When We Were Kings.”  The attention of the world – and not just the sporting world – was focused on this prize fight, which was held in Zaire, the sprawling Central African nation formerly known as the Belgium Congo.  The controversies that surrounded the fight, like the star attraction Muhammad Ali, transcended the sport of boxing and accounts for the great interest the event held for people who were not boxing fans or sports fans at all.  It is impossible to grasp the gravity of this spectacle without understanding its relationship to broader historical trends.

At the time Muhammad Ali was the most famous man in the world and the perfect icon for an era of world black revolution which came of age with Ali in the 1960’s, and was embodied in his personality.  Having given up millions of dollars when he was stripped of his heavy-weight crown because he denounced America’s criminal invasion of Vietnam and refused induction into the US army, Ali became one of the most controversial personalities of that revolutionary decade and the ultimate symbol of militant black resistance.  What made his stance so admirable was that he would have been assigned to special services and never have to actually go into combat.  So his stance was an unmistakable act of principle, made at great sacrifice to him self. 

There was no comparable act by anyone in the world of sports and entertainment.  And when he joined the feared and hated “Black Muslims” of the Nation of Islam, the white media and white supremacist of every stripe were up in arms.  Ali’s decision to join the NOI, which under normal circumstances would have been his personal business, was announced at a time when the NOI’s spokesman Malcolm X was the most feared and hated man in the nation by white Americans.  And during his preparation for the title bout with the seemingly invincible Sonny Liston – a former Mafia enforcer who became the undisputed champion and petrified everybody else in the heavy-weight division – Ali invited Malcolm X into his training camp.  After his relatively easy victory over the powerful but outclassed Liston, which shocked the boxing world, Ali attributed his victory to the state of mind he developed in rap sessions with Malcolm during training. 

 There were white guys in the boxing business who had never said a word about the role of white gangsters in the game who wanted to strip Ali of the title immediately.  But since freedom of religion is a constitutional right of all American citizens they would surely have been defeated in court had they attempted to take the crown by administrative fiat.  Hence Ali’s refusal of induction was a gift to these reactionary racist who saw their chance to dethrone him; they knew this was the only way he would lose the crown because he was miles ahead of any of the heavy-weight contenders.  Ali was truly the greatest!

 However aside from the rumblings on the right about the fight, there was much consternation on the left too.  For black progressives, who were huge Ali fans, both the legendary promoter Don King – the best since P.T. Barnum – and Mobutu SeSe Seko, the corrupt dictator who ruled Zaire with a ball and chain, were black charlatans who had appropriated the symbols and slogans of the black revolution but where all blow and no go.  In the view of politically astute black people Don King was giving positive play to a traitor to the African revolution. A man who had collaborated with the Belgium colonialists to assassinate the true leader of the Congolese liberation movement- the brilliant and fearless Patrice Lumumba – that resulted in his ascension to power, where he presided over a government that was so corrupt that analyst had to coin a term to describe it: “Cleptocracy!”

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This is the minimal essential background one must understand in order to fully appreciate the contemporary and historical significance of “The Rumble in the Jungle.” While Don King was mostly interested in making money and Mobutu was in it for the glory, in spite of King’s effusive “black talk,” the musicians were excited about going to perform in the motherland.  For them it was a spiritual journey to the wellsprings of their art, Neo-African musical forms which has expanded and enriched the western musical tradition.  This is readily apparent from the ongoing interviews with the performing artists at every stage of the trip; the triumphant return to the motherland is a recurrent theme.  The film is constructed so that the narrative builds in drama by showing the great anticipation which greeted the performances on the part of everybody: the planners and promoters; the set builders and sound and lightening men; the people of Zaire; Muhammad Ali and his entourage, and most of all the musicians.

The great enthusiasm with which the musicians anticipated this performance was displayed in the impromptu performances that broke out on the long plane ride from the Americas back to Africa.  This was an all star lineup, the most popular black American and Afro-Latino musicians in the world!  Although the Latin contingent included musicians of all complexions – from the virtuoso congero Ray Barretto, who is a white Puerto Rican, to the great singer Celia Cruz, who is a black Cuban, they were all committed to a Neo-African art form.  In both the English and Spanish speaking Americas, the music created by the blacks and mulattos is the most dynamic and popular – the national music of their civilizations. 

 Celia Cruz: Queen of Afro-Cuban Song

Celia Cruz

Her Powerful Pipes lit it up!

 

Given the prominence of rhythm instruments in Afro-Latin music it is no wonder that it was they who started the jam on the plane.  It started with clave, cow bell, hand claps and voices – led by the singing of Celia Cruz – and soon the guitarists joined in on acoustic guitars, strumming rhythmic figures and inventing melodies, then the violinist had their axes out.  It got so funky blues icon B.B. King had his guitar out picking along.  The Johnny Pacheco broke out his flute and the plane was rocking, this preview only wet our appetites for the performances to come.

 On the night of the concert the Latin musicians brought the house down.  Although the Zaireans loved the Afro-American musicians, and the “Godfather of Soul” James Brown was the biggest star of all, the Latinos had a special rapport with the audience because their music has retained so many African elements.  First of all African music is characterized by complex polyrhythms, with percussion instruments the dominant voice, and so is Afro-Latin music: Afro-Cuban music especially.   Furthermore the Son Montuno, which is the traditional Afro-Cuban orchestral music, was largely attributed to the creative genius of Arsenio Rodriguez, who is said to be of Congolese origin.  One need only listen to bands like Africando to see how well Africans relate to Afro-Cuban music.  All African music is dance oriented and drums are played for a variety of religious and cultural rituals, which is also true of Afro-Cubans.

So the Latin Musicians wowed the crowd; Celia Cruz was marvelous, she got everybody on their feet as the band fired her up. Flautist Johnny Pacheco, who was conducting the band went off, he played beautifully on the flute and then got down with Celia Cruz in a dynamic display of the art of Mambo.  The crowd went wild!   Ray Barretto delighted the crowd with his virtuosity on the Conga drums, at one time playing four of them.  It was a wonderful exhibition of what the African musical tradition became when it encountered the melodically and harmonically complex music of Europe in the new world.

soulpower-Pacheco and Cruise 

Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco Getting Down

 

When Louis Armstrong toured West Africa during the colonial period in the 1950’s his British hosts assured him that Africans would only appreciate up-tempo dance music with “a lot of loud drum solos.”  Pops rejected their musical advice and played his normal repertoire, and the African audiences loved it.  I thought of this when I watched Bill withers singing a very slow and beautiful romantic ballad, accompanying him self on acoustic guitar, casting a spell on the crowd who listened with rapt attention.

soulpower-mv-billwithers-3 Bill Withers Crooning a Sensitive Song

 

A great songwriter and dynamic performer, withers is also a sensitive and intelligent guy.  The African Journey was a deeply spiritual experience to him.  When the question arose as to what the musicians wanted to take back from Africa, withers said the main thing he wanted to carry back home from his journey wasn’t souvenirs but “this feeling I have here.”   B.B. King was another guitar man who played his regular repertoire and just came out and shouted the blues, the audience loved him and he loved them too. The journey was also profound spiritual journey for him. Growing up in apartheid Mississippi where his blackness and African origins were used as an indictment against him as if it were a crime by the white rulers of the state, the trip to Africa was a kind of spiritual cleansing, he even loved the sweltering heat that had everybody dripping with sweat from the moment they took the stage. 

soulpower-M. Makeba 

 The Divine Merriam Makeba!

Some of the most touching moments was the exchanges between African performers and the Africans from the American Diaspora. The scenes of Ray Barretto and other Latin percussionist drumming together and Sister Sledge exchanging hip movements with the African ladies – who got the better of the exchange – are poignant examples. They Africans also loved the all male Rhythm & Blues singing group with their tradition of great singing while executing fabulous complex choreography.  Which on this occasion was represented by the Spinners, the classic group with Phillppe Wynn singing lead, who rocked the stadium with their hit song “One of A Kind Love Affair.”  One of the characteristics of this genre of singing, who’s staple is the love song – sung slowly or uptempo – and to be effective the lead singer must recreate the emotional experience, the ecstasy of being happily in love or the pain of heartbreak.  None has done it better than Phillippe Wynn, who gave an inspired performance as the Spinners backed his lead with glorious harmonies and fancy footwork.

 soulpower-The Spinners

 The Mighty Spinners in Full Effect!

 

Of all the magic moments in this film – and there were many – none were more moving than the performances of the African musicians.  There are the wonderful scenes of the Cameroonian Saxophonist Manu Dibango, who recorded “Soul Makossa,’ which combined Afro-American Rhythm & Blues arrangements on top of a slamming African percussion section.  The record was a monster smash hit in Africa, Europe, Latin America and the USA.  One could credibly argue that it was the beginning of what is now euphemistically called “World Music.”  In the movie we do not see Dibango’s concert performance; rather he is filmed wandering through the city’s neighborhood’s with his soprano sax playing for the children like a pied piper.  When the children surround him he begins to compose a chant with them on the spot. 

Soul Makossa!

soulpower-mano Dabango

Mano D’bango the Pied Piper

As with the Latino’s on the plane, this episode demonstrates how Africans can create an impromptu musical performance with polyrhythmic hand claps and antiphonal chants – call and response – with a lead singer whose lines are answered by a chorus.  As the children gathered around, mesmerized by the sound of the saxophone much like Emmanuel Kant was mesmerized by the church steeple, the teenagers began to surround him too.  Soon they were all singing and clapping in a joyous display of polyrhythmic polyphony, two elements that are present to some extent in all African derived music.  

Although among African Americans in the US polyphony eventually gave way to harmony, as an examination of our singing styles from the work songs of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – which is very African in character – to the sleek four and five part harmonies of Rhythm and blues singing.  Polyphonic singing is alive and well in Afro-Latin music however; polyrhythms and antiphony remains a basic feature of all Neo-African music whether vocal or orchestral.  This was very clear in comparing the African and Neo-African bands in the movie.

 Among the galaxy of stars who performed at this historic concert none gave a more spiritually uplifting performance than the gifted South African songstress Merriam Makeba.  While there was much talk about the African struggle against European oppression, the state of African peoples in the world was uneven, with various nationalities experiencing different degrees of liberation.  For instance, the centuries old struggle of African peoples in the America’s had eliminated chattel slavery and resulted in various degrees of civil rights and national integration in their societies.  In the US racial discrimination had been rendered illegal after a final bloody push in the 1960’s, and Cuba had dramatically eliminate the system of legal racial apartheid as a result of the armed revolution in which Afro-Cubans played a major role.  Although racist sentiment still hangs on in the hearts and minds of some white Cubans. 

However the symbol of that continuing struggle was best represented by Merriam Makeba, whose countrymen were still suffering under an oppressive murderous racist regime whose ideology was synonymous with Nazism.  Her Marriage to the radical black leader from the US Stokely Carmichael – who made a brief cameo in the film rapping with Muhammad Ali – was a living symbol of the unity of the pan-African struggle against white domination.  Hence her performance was the most politically significant of the concert.

 When all was said and done, the undisputed superstar of the three day musical happenings was James Brown, “The Godfather of Soul!”   Earlier in the film Loyd Price – one of the fathers of Rhythm & Blues – is seen telling James Brown how he has heard many bands performing his music, although French is the European language that they are conversant with.  Yet, Price tells Brown, “They sing your songs in English.”  Such was Browns appeal on the African continent that politicians routinely used his music to draw crowds at their rallies!  James Brown listened with genuine joy and humility, and it made him determined to put on the best show of his life…which was no mean feat since he was already known as “The hardest working man in show business!”

James Brown and Lloyd Price

soulpower-James Brown and Loyd Price 

Soul Survivors Who Created an Art form

 While most people fifty years old and younger may not know who Lloyd Price is, I remember him as a big star of the mid 1950’s who was a founder of the musical style we have come to know as Rhythm & Blues.  Price was right out there with the Georgia boys who contributed so much to the foundation of this dynamic musical genre: Ray Charles, Little Richard and James Brown.  Billed as “Mr. Personality” because of his luminous style and dynamic stage persona Price produced a string of hits that did much to define the style: Lawdy Miss Claudy, Stagolee, Where Were You on Our Wedding Day, Personality, etc.  So I was very disappointed that we did not get to see him perform his vintage hits: oldies but goodies for sure!

soulpower-James Brown The Godfather Makes A Grand Entrance

 

The crowd was hyped for James Brown’s performance, which was the highlight of the historic show.  And when it was superstar time in the stadium the Godfather was super bad.  Backed by a rocking big band that was funkier than a mosquitoes Tweeter, James Brown demonstrated why he justly deserves the title of “Hardest working Man in show business as he sang is heart out and danced like a whirling dervish.  Browns basic moves comes off of a style we used to call the mash potatoes, of which he was the undisputed king if not the inventor.  All of the greatest dancers in the US pop music tradition flow from James Brown.  While he had some close competitors – for instance Jackie Wilson, Little Richard and Muddy Waters were some dancing fools too – James Brown has emerged as the greatest influence on contemporary performers like MC Hammer, Prince and the recently departed King of Pop Michael Jackson.  The Africans – who dance on all important occasions, as those who witnessed highly intellectual octogenarian Nelson Mandela dancing the Toi Toi upon his election as the first black President of South Africa can attest – surely recognized the influence of their dance traditions in Browns spectacular soul ballet.

soulpower-James Brown II Super Ba

 The God Father Works up a Cold Sweat!

 

The only star in this show who was larger and shone more brightly that The Godfather was Muhammad Ali: “The Greatest!”  Like Brown Ali is a man of the people – not like the central character in the Nigerian novelist and modern African sage Chinua Achebe’s well crafted and highly insightful novel by that name.  He is the real deal, black people all over the world love him with an unusual passion reserved for those who struggle and sacrifice in their behalf.  One of the most entertaining, witty and inspiring features in this documentary is the unexpurgated monologues of Muhammad Ali.

 The Avatar of Our Hopes and Dreams

soulpower-Ali

The Cause Celebre that brought a multitude to Africa.

 

Ali expanded on his views about There was no question that the man of the moment, the raison de’ ere for the magnificent celebration of our Africanity, was Muhammad Ali. The great affection with which he was held in Africa was reflected in the constant chants that rang out from the crowds everywhere he went: “Al Boomaye!  Ali Boomaye! “Which literally meat “Ali Kill him!”   When the hulking and menacing George Foreman, found out the meaning of the chants he was so unnerved he threatened to pack up and go home.  George foreman had mistakenly assumed that the Africans would be for him because he looked more like them than Ali. 

 But that’s the same mistake the white Republicans make when they choose obsequious house Negroes like Clarence Thomas, Dr. Alan Keyes and Mikie Steele – whose spine seems to be made of mercury – in the vain hope that black people will support them because they are unambiguously black in their physical persona.  However black people are far more sophisticated than that – we have even coined a term for such quislings: Oreos!  Africans in particular are not overly impressed with skin color because in Africa both the heroes and the villains are black!  They loved Ali because they can feel that he loves them and has sacrificed for black people in a way that has made him one of the most beloved sons of African anywhere in the world.

It is instructive that Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest men of the twentieth century, and a former heavy-weight boxer, said that following Ali’s fights inspired them and helped him continue his own fight during the 27 years he was imprisoned at the notorious Robbin Island prison! You can’t get a better endorsement than that. This movie was a great tribute to the man and his mettle, and a great musical experience to boot.  Everybody who interested in the history of popular music in the twentieth century and the history of the black liberation struggle too, should see this movie in the theater and rush to the store and buy it when it comes out on a DVD.  This is a piece of the black experience in the modern world you would like to own.

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Playthell Benjamin

New York City 

July 10, 2009

 

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