Joey Grihalva

Milwaukee Film Festival

The Remarkable Story of Finding Fela!

The African icon’s life is now a movie built on success of the Broadway musical. The back story of how it happened.

By - Oct 3rd, 2014 11:28 am
Finding Fela

Finding Fela

As a hip-hop kid born in the 80s I didn’t come across the “The Bob Marley of Africa,” the King of Afrobeat, the Black President, Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, or simply, Fela Kuti, as he is known to the world, until his son (Femi Kuti) made a song with Mos Def. A few years later, when I was working as a videographer in Minneapolis, my boss borrowed me a three-disc Best of Fela CD set. I was hooked instantly. It was as if Miles Davis and James Brown and Mos Def had a Nigerian baby.

Before UGK’s “International Players Anthem” there was Fela’s “International Thief Thief.”

When a musical about Fela’s life and legacy, Fela!, came to Broadway in 2009 I didn’t think twice. I recruited one of my best friends, a Nigerian-American from Milwaukee living in Brooklyn, to catch the show with me. It was pure magic. Fela was that dude. He fought power. He laid down a heavy groove. He lived the High Life. Never have I danced so much in Times Square.

How did that musical happen to get created? Three years after Fela’s soul left his body, in 1997, producer Stephen Hendel inadvertently picked up one of his CDs. He immediately becomes a fan. I asked him to talk about the impact of that.

“I’d never heard his story,” he says, “but when I did it changed my life. I loved the music, I couldn’t stop listening to it. The more I read about it, the more I thought about it, it seemed to be the great untold story about art, struggle and social action.”

“After years of listening and learning,” Hendel continues, “I spent another year acquiring the rights. During that process my lawyer introduced me to Bill T. Jones, the renowned choreographer. I decided to turn Fela’s story into a musical theater production. We put together a bunch of artists that Bill led and before we knew it the show had run on Broadway for 15 months, received 11 Tony Award nominations and won three.”

“I learned the most about Fela’s story during the process of making the play,” Hendel recalls. “I knew early on that we were creating something special, so I brought in a young documentary filmmaker, Nara Garber, to shoot what she could. By the time we opened off Broadway we had almost 250 hours of footage. Towards the end of that run we were invited by the Nigerian government to put the show on in Lagos. Before we left I met Alex Gibney, who had seen the musical and was a fan, and he agreed to finish a documentary about Fela. I think we shot another 250 hours of footage during those two weeks in Lagos.

After that Hendel and Gibney spent some two years finding more archival footage. “Alex went around the world interviewing people who were important in Fela’s life,” Hendel recounts. “The family participated in a very profound way. If you fall under the influence or forcefield of Fela, you can’t get away from it, so people were very willing to speak.”

“It’s been a lot of labor,” Hendel reflects. “A solid decade of work. I ask myself, how could I have possibly found the energy? But more importantly, we should ask ourselves, who was Fela? And how do we wrap our arms and thoughts around him and what he meant to the world?”

The person responsible for turning Fela Kuti onto revolutionary politics is a fabulous individual from California named Sandra Izsadore. I had the chance to speak with Sandra recently.

Sandra Izsadore at the L.A. screening.

Sandra Izsadore at the L.A. screening.

What was your life like when you met Fela?

Back then I was teenager. I was going to [Black] Panthers meetings, ACLU meetings, any meeting I could find. I was hungry for knowledge. I could not understand why there was a difference between white and black. I wanted to know when I was going to turn white. It was one of those kinds of things that start in early childhood. Gradually I became educated and aware, and soon realized I had been lied to through education and religion. So I became rebellious.

Where did you grow up?

Los Angeles. My parents sheltered me from the history of America. They did not want me to know the ugly truth about segregation and hatred. So by the time I found out I was one angry sister.

Where did you first meet Fela?

It was a beautiful day in August, 1969. Fela was performing for the NAACP in the garden of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

What was your perception of Africans before knowing Fela?

There was this curiosity because when I looked in the mirror I knew that these people were related to me. But what white America had taught me through television was that they were savages who ran through the jungle and ate people.

I felt like I needed to know the truth and the only way I was going to learn was by getting in with the African people. I wanted to know the history. I just knew something wasn’t right with the picture I had of Africans. So I began to read and I became angry. But I’ve been able to evolve and let go of that anger. I realize that we are all people and we’re all in this boat together. What we need to do is collectively make a change, otherwise it’s going to be self-destruction for us all.

What struck you about Fela when you first met him?

He was different than all the other African students I knew at the time. He didn’t act like them, he didn’t smell like them, he was wild, he was on the edge, and that was something I really liked.

What was your first thought when you heard there was going to be a musical produced about Fela?

I was in a state of shock. I thought it was impossible to take someone’s life and turn it into a musical, especially because Fela was such a complex man. I was angry. Until I saw it. Then I saw the integrity, and the thought that went into it. It was incredible how they dissected and put him back together. It was so pure. It was like a reincarnation.

Were you hesitant about being interviewed for the film?

I was one hundred percent on board because I had seen what they had done with the musical. Also, I have the highest respect and regard for Alex Gibney because he is the director of Death Row Stories, the CNN series in which he uncovered so much knowledge. When you have people like Bill T. Jones, Jim Lewis and Alex Gibney, doing what they do, those are experts in their line of work, so when you have people like that telling the story, you can somewhat be confident that the message will be delivered without being diluted or twisted into something false.

What did you think about Michelle Williams (of Destiny’s Child) performance in your role?

In the beginning I was really upset because she did not portray me well. I don’t know who she was playing but it wasn’t me. We actually had lunch one day and I told her, “If you’re going to play me, you need to play me right, because I’m not that mealy mouth girl.” Paulette Ivory is the person who played the role closest to my true self.

If you could have anyone play you, alive or dead, who would you choose?

To be honest, I think that Jada Pinkett Smith could’ve played me. Even Queen Latifah. Maybe Sister Souljah. She’s not an actress but I feel as though she understands the plight and where a young black woman was coming from in 1969.

But I also want to say this, after the closing of the musical at The Ahmanson in Los Angeles, I can truly say that Michelle Williams got it. She figured it out in the end.

Finding Fela! screens at 7:30pm at the Oriental Theatre. An after party is being held at Colectivo on Prospect starting at 9pm.


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