When We Were Kings

Dir: Leon Gast, 1996. Documentaries.
When We Were Kings
More than just a documentary about boxing or a boxer or a fight, Leon Gast’s astoundingly epic documentary When We Were Kings captures a fascinating period of history and tells the story of how a cocky young fighter named Cassius Clay became the worldwide icon known as Muhammad Ali. The biggest event in boxing history—and maybe the biggest event of the decade—was when boxing promoter Don King got the latest champ, the hard-hitting monster George Foreman, to take on the supposedly washed up 33-year-old ex-champ Ali in Zaire in ’74, in the event known as “the rumble in the jungle.”
As If the fight wasn't hyped enough there was also a sorta Soul Woodstock surrounding it with music acts including James Brown, BB King, and The Spinners performing. The filmmakers use a treasure trove of original footage from the fight and, more importantly, footage of the months in Africa leading up to the event while also including present-day (1996) reactions from talking heads such as the late writers George Plimpton and Norman Mailer. They witnessed the bout in person and, looking back, were surprised by how wrong they were about the outcome they expected. As both a cultural and historical funky travelogue to a curious time, while also revealing Ali’s complicated and controversial back story, When We Were Kings is utterly engrossing and maybe the most monumental documentary for reminding us how much bigger the role, politically, sports can play in world events.
The recently formed, independent Zaire was led by a ruthless dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, about whom Mailer points out, “Dictators are mostly monumentally ugly and he was looking like a closet sadist.” Seko put up most of the millions for the fight (from his direly poor country’s pockets) in a effort to change the country’s image and make it a potential tourist attraction. Before the foreign press arrived they rounded up hundreds of known criminals and randomly killed a hundred of them to spread the word amongst criminals, making Zaire briefly one of the safest places in the world.
Ali’s story, of course, had an almost operatic character arc. He went from a brash, unlikely boxing superstar to a political figure, joining the Black Muslims, changing his name, and refusing to take part in the Vietnam War. At the time he frustrated white America by continually not playing the role of the dignified champ who kept his mouth shut, which they wanted him to play. Instead he proved to be his own man, the kind of black man America was not used to and scared of. But history proved him right and, by the mid-70s, he was being embraced as a true original, even as an ambassador to the world—a role he fully embraced.
An injury to Ali delayed the fight and Ali stayed in Zaire to train, endearing himself even more to the Africans as he went out of his way to relate to them. He found himself in awe of a society where dark-skinned people were the pilots, doctors, and presidents. Foreman, on the other hand, who has since become a lovable, fat TV pitchman, was then an overwhelmingly intimidating figure; he looked like a giant compared to the svelte Ali. No one, including Ali’s own people, figured Ali had much of a chance to be able to stand up to the powerful foe, with the exception of the Africans—the entire stadium cheered for Ali. Foreman's German shepherds reminded the Africans of police dogs; he didn’t understand why he wasn’t loved by his fellow black people but the power of Ali’s personality was too much to overcome.
The fight itself is a shocker: Ali the sleeping lion, famously used the “rope-a-dope” technique, letting Foreman spend all his energy beating Ali to a pulp before Ali then took over. As soon as the fight ended, like a cue from God, the monsoons hit and rain started to pour down. The next day Ali met with African groups and humbly implored them to stay African. He told them that some blacks in America may be richer but that they have lost the spirit that Africans have. And though the film ends with a horrible “When We Were Kings” theme song, there is a beautiful montage of Ali clips and photos. And then Plimpton tells a great story about some years later when Ali spoke to a Harvard graduating class and after asking them to use their education to help the world, he recited the shortest poem of all time. It went: “me – we.” It’s simple but it beautifully sums up both the legend and the soul of Ali; more than just the greatest character in American sports history, he’s a true cultural hero for all of us, the whole world. Ironically for a boxer who made a name beating people up, Ali has proved to be one of the great men of peace.

When We Were Kings won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1997.
Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 29, 2012 5:11pm
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