Muhammad Ali was a remarkable man. The little I know about him comes partly from his position as a cultural icon but mostly from this Academy Award(©®TM)-winning documentary. Ali immediately comes off as a charismatic, likeable, admirable man — not from sycophants and fans — but from his own words, bearing, and outlook.
When We Were Kings covers the so-called “Rumble in the Jungle,” an event surrounding a boxing match between Ali and George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. I say “event” because the “Rumble” was more than just boxing. The boxing match was to cap a weekend festival — an international Woodstock judging from the scope and feeling — featuring top black American and African performers including James Brown, B.B. King, and Miriam Makeba.
The first act of the movie deals with the hype, preparation, and logistics of the event. The second act begins when, during a training bout, George Foreman cuts his eye. The fight has to be delayed six weeks. Here the movie slows down a bit and explores the two fighters in greater depth and looks at the political atmosphere of Zaire in 1974. The third act peaks with the fight itself and recaps Ali’s life.
The movie has no narrator. The events are told from the mouths of the participants in footage taken at the time and from several modern interviews including two sports writers who covered the event in 1974, George Plimpton and Norman Mailer, and Ali biographer Thomas Hauser.
Boxing, at least this particular match, is explained in a way that made me appreciate the sport on a deeper level. The movie explained each fighter’s strengths and weaknesses and anticipated the outcome based on a rational interpretation of the facts.
There is a surprise in the actual match and that surprise is analyzed strategically by the sports writers who were there and through the editing of the fight footage. The movie doesn’t give away the surprise to those of us not up on our boxing history, which is a nice touch. We can experience the same excitement and surprise today that the 1974 audience felt. Gast and co-editors Taylor Hackford, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, and Keith Robinson did a great job editing this film, not just in terms of analysis and explanation, but also in keeping us interested through the whole story.
When We Were Kings is a good, if unexpected, mix of boxing & politics. Early on, a voiceover of a boxing match is laid on top of old footage of white cops beating black men. The movie tells of Ali’s ties to Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, and it honors Ali for refusing to be drafted for the Vietnam War. The movie doesn’t introduce politics into a nonpolitical movie. Rather, it explores the political ideas of Ali and of the political climate of Zaire and America.
The movie also deals with racial and international issues well, especially on an emotional level. For example, Ali explains how free he feels when he meets the black pilot and copilot of the African jet he’s flying on. Foreman is assumed to be white because Ali has been hyped in Zaire as the great black American boxer. When Foreman steps off the jet with his German shepherd dog, he is instantly feared and reviled because German shepherds were used against the people of Zaire by the (Belgian colonists? Do I have that right?). When the fight is over, Ali, having spent nearly two months in Zaire, says a sincere respectful farewell to its people, praising their virtues over African-Americans.
The movie does have some flaws. First, I would have liked to have seen or heard about Muhammad Ali today. The movie presents him as such an interesting figure that I’d like to know what he’s done since his farewell performance. The movie alludes to some physical problems, but it never discusses them openly. I think this could have been a nice coda to the film.
Also, Spike Lee is included in the interviews and I don’t know why. The other interviewees were there in ‘74 or had some tie to Ali. Lee is included as a black leader of today, but this black filmmaker seems out of place in this boxing movie.
Finally, there is an embarrassing moment at the end of the movie that has the glorious gospel anthem “When We Were Kings” playing on the soundtrack over a series of maybe five or six of Ali’s knockouts of other boxers.
Detach yourself from the fact that it is Ali in these scenes for a moment — it’s easy to do because the knockouts are blown up from old black and white footage. A string of six (or so) consecutive shots shows one black man beating another black man senseless and unconscious, yet the music recalls a glorious time “When We Were Kings.” During the whole movie, boxing had been debrutalized by an honest, close-up look at the participants and their strategies. In this quick series, boxing is sent back to brutality and a sense of irony is finally introduced to the title of the movie.
Still, When We Were Kings is a good example of able filmmakers staying out of the way of a very interesting subject.