A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Documentarian Alex Gibney's "Finding Fela," about the legendary African pop star and political activist, feels like a rough draft for a very good movie.
Parts of it are stirring because the subject matter is inherently noble. Fela Ransome Kuti, who died in 1997 at age 58, was multi-disciplinary songwriter, singer, bandleader and activist who invented Afrobeat music, hooked up with the Black Panther Party during a U.S. tour, then went home and mocked the dictatorial Nigerian government throughout the 1970s. He also formed a commune, Kalakuta Republic, that he declared a sovereign nation; started a nightclub called the Afro-Spot in the Empire Hotel in Lagos, and embraced the Yoruba faith, becoming a spiritual leader and even officiating at weddings.
Most of all, he was a great pop protester, working in a country where being that kind of performer required real sacrifice. Kuti was arrested or detained by police over 200 times during his career, and often the police actions were purely retaliatory harassment. Kuti's music was compositionally bold but also danceable; commentator Questlove as being in the spirit of Bob Marley's but requiring a "more sophisticated ear."
But more than that, it was a vehicle for messages of pride and defiance against Nigeria's repressive government, particularly its brutal police. Kuti teased them in songs such as "Zombie," "The Mosquito Song" and "Go Slow" (about the horrendous traffic jams in the Nigerian capital of Lagos, which cops tried to speed up by beating any drivers who didn't move quickly enough). The movie never attempts even a speculative answer to the question of why a notoriously thin-skinned and violent government allowed Kuti to mock them openly over so many years. And yet if you don't know every detail of the story, this vagueness works in the movie's favor; you worry that just around the next bend lurks the moment when the government finally gets fed up.