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When We Were Kings (1996).

June 17, 2008

The Scoop:
In our UFC/mixed martial arts age, boxing — with its big padded gloves and strict limitations on engagement — seems positively quaint. At the height of its popularity, boxing was the gladatorial spectacle of its day and although it was cloaked in the “sweet science” rhapsodizing of the writers who covered it, the level of violence (tame by today’s standards) was enough to keep critics aghast.

What also seems quaint is the celebrity of Muhammad Ali, particularly the way he used his fame toward political and social ends rather than commercial ones. Few modern athletes can hope to reach his global appeal, and those who do (such as Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods) seem more interested in selling products than supporting causes. Commerce has trumped conscience, and now even the slightest his of an opinion on a controversial topic is considered career poison.

All of which makes Leon Gast’s fine documentary “When We Were Kings” feel like a trip through a time machine. And what a revelatory, eye-opening trip it is. Gast set out to simply document Ali’s 1974 bout against reigning heavyweight champion George Foreman in Zaire — dubbed “The Rumble in the Jungle” by exuberant promotor Don King — but instead happened upon one of the great socio-political crucibles of the 1970s.

Ali’s outsized charisma and outspoken views on American race relations turned out to electrify the people of Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and capture the imagination of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who used his influence to bring the fight to his country. When Foreman was injured in practice, forcing the postponement of the bout, it just gave Ali that much more time to win over the people of Zaire.

Along with the fight, King also organized a music festival, featuring standout performances by James Brown, Miriam Makeba, B.B. King, the Spinners and other acts. Gast captured these performances with the same eye for nuance and personality that he brings to bear on Ali’s and Foreman’s fight preparations, as well as on glimpses of everyday life in Zaire.

Taking advantage of the 22-year delay between production and distribution (courtesy of legal squabbles with the film’s Liberian investors), Gast couples all this terrific footage with thoughtful interviews with observers like Norman Mailer, George Plimpton and Spike Lee who help put the events into historical context.

It all adds up to a must-see film, even for those who do not consider themselves boxing fans, or even sports fans. “When We Were Kings” is a powerful history lesson that has much to teach 21st century viewers.

Best Bit:
Norman Mailer doing his Ali impression.

Side Note:
Although the film revealed deep personal animosity between Foreman and Ali, they eventually became good friends. When the film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary, the two came onstage together to accept the award.

Companion Viewing:
“Ali” (2001) and “Hoop Dreams” (1994).


Take a Look:
James Brown brings the soul:

Mailer and Plimpton break down the fight:

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