Late in this documentary about the Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, the musician’s longtime manager, Rikki Stein, recalls the time he traveled to the U.S. to meet with every major record label on behalf of his client and was invariably asked, “Which three minutes out of that 28-minute song do you want me to put on the radio?” Kuti’s tunes typically began with a percussionist laying down an irrepressibly funky beat, then the guitarist adding some edgy riff, then the other players joining in one by one until a brass fanfare elevated the music to the next level of drama; over the course of a half hour or more, the song built, peaked, and subsided like the plot of a movie. Of course director Alex Gibney has his own story arc to construct, and like so many other documentary makers dealing with musical figures, he hasn’t much choice but to excerpt bits and pieces from Kuti’s numbers; he might stretch out a live performance by mixing the music underneath the talking-head commentary that brackets his concert footage, but in this context even three minutes would be pushing it.
Gibney faces even more daunting obstacles in having to introduce Kuti—a cultural giant in his native Nigeria and across the African continent—to Americans who might know nothing about him, and to chronicle the convulsive political shifts of postcolonial Africa as a white filmmaker. To some extent Gibney sidesteps these problems by ceding the movie’s perspective on Kuti to award-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones; interpolated with the interviews and archival footage are scenes of Jones, a black American, masterminding the 2009 Broadway show Fela! and trying to come to terms with the cultural differences that might have bedeviled Gibney. Jones addresses Kuti’s polygamy and regal attitude toward his many wives—or, as Jones calls it, “the women issue”—by urging his star, Sahr Ngaujah, to “get in [the audience’s] face about it” and, effectively, play the race card, characterizing the wives as “queens of Africa.” And Jones simply ignores the singer’s tragic death from AIDS in 1997, explaining that he doesn’t want Kuti to become his disease.
There’s a telling moment late in the movie when Jones and Stein are discussing Kuti’s incendiary protest songs about the Nigerian government, which made him a perpetual victim of police brutality. “You couldn’t possibly go through what he went through unless it was based on a real love for people,” argues Stein, who knew the man intimately but is a white Englishman. “I think he had a love for people—he had a love for an idea about people—but I think what’s really compelling to me is what is mad in him,” counters Jones, who didn’t know Kuti but understands his struggle in a way Stein never could. Their contradictory takes reveal what a challenging cultural figure Kuti was and still is; the problem isn’t really finding Fela, but containing him.