Grade: B+When We Were Kings (1996)

Director: Leon Gast

Stars: Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Spike Lee

Release Company: Four Media Company

MPAA Rating: PG

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When We Were Kings


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Ranking among Oscar’s top moments in the past decade is the poignant appearance of an unsteady Muhammad Ali being assisted to the stage by former opponent George Foreman when the winner of the best documentary of 1996 was announced. These two boxing icons are much beloved by nearly everyone now, but it was much different back in the 1970s. When We Were Kings recalls a different time and place.

Leon Gasts' footage covering the events of the Rumble in the Jungle remained entangled in African legal limbo for 22 years before he could juxtapose images of the most dynamic boxing documentary ever to hit the silver screen. If you loved the action in any of the Rocky movies, get hold of this film right away—this is no Hollywood version of the underdog seeking a mythical quest against an unbeatable foe. This is the real deal!

As remarkable as When We Were Kings chronicles the incredible Ali-Foreman bout, the film captures much more—a time capsule history of the period and definitive evidence of why Muhammad Ali still stands at the pinnacle of boxing. Love him or hate him, no one could be neutral about Ali in those days

The 1974 match represented a worldwide cultural and sociological happening—a return to African roots just before Alex Haley's book raised U.S. television audience sensitivity. Promoter Don King was looking for his first bash and Zaire President Mobutu was willing to fork up 10 million bucks to gain respect and notoriety, so the event attracted some great black artists to the Congo, including the First Brother of Soul (James Brown) and blues icon B.B. King.

Despite the marquee value of the combatants, many have forgotten what a mismatch this title fight was considered. After being stripped from his title and spending time in prison for refusing draft induction, the 33-year old Ali was considered past his prime and ready for retirement. The much younger George Foreman wasn't the lovable guy you see now, selling grills and cracking jokes on Dave Letterman. He was a mean, sullen wrecking ball who had destroyed Smoking Joe Frazier (knocking him down 7 times) and made Ken Norton look like a rag doll when he took just two rounds to annihilate him. George even unintentionally offended citizens of the host country by bringing his German Shepherd along, reminding them of the Belgians and their police dogs.

Even Ali's most ardent supporter from sports broadcasting, Howard Cosell, pronounced the inevitable—that he didn't see how Ali could win—that Ali wasn't the same man he was 10 years ago (to which Ali retorted that he had talked to Cosell's wife, who said that Howard wasn't the same man he was two years ago).

Ali puts on a typical show in press conferences. No one has ever been a better promoter of himself or boxing—from the outrageous claims (like a new training method by wrestling with an alligator) to spontaneous pre-rap artist poetry:

Only last week, I murdered a rock,
Injured a stone, hospitalized a brick.
I'm so mean, I make medicine sick!
The film also shows Ali dropping his guard and becoming very real. He knows the odds—bookies list him as a 7-1 underdog. Ali asks which of the sports writers have picked Foreman without pretense. He laughs along with the writers with this, at one point saying "Come on John, I know you got George." Frequently flashing his natural sense of humor throughout the documentary, Ali shows why he was such a beloved figure. Had he not been a boxer, Ali is a natural “actor” dominating every scene that he's in.

Gast explains that Ali was far more accessible during the filming than Foreman, so that's why he is the undisputed star of the documentary. Ali even went into director mode, telling Gast that he could get a great road work shot by going to a certain spot at 5 AM to catch him at sunrise. Knowing that he's on camera, Ali often acts for a larger audience. After a lackluster sparring session, Ali verbally jabs at Foreman, joking "The man's in trouble, the man is scared. He's in my country to start with!" He then spontaneously paints a picture of tens of thousands of locals cheering him on with the chant: "Ali, boma ye!" (“Ali, Kill him!”). Soon, this chant becomes universally known and will boost Ali's spirits during the match against the fearsome Foreman.

The film provides lively camera angles, effective tracking shots, and mixes images very well. The most questionable selection comes when writer George Plimpton talks about a voodoo doctor predicting that a "succubus" with trembling hands would "get to" Foreman with juxtaposed visuals of African singer Miriam Makeba half panting and singing a number. It works as a visual, but is far too manipulative to be taken seriously, and music lovers will be take issue with implications that Makeba is a voodoo queen, casting spells on Foreman.

The visual music clips could be shortened and more information about Mobutu could have been included, but this is inconsequential with the frequent cutting back to Muhammad Ali—he continually performs magically for the camera. The interview clips with writers Plimpton and Norman Mailer, who both attended the match as young journalists, are effective. Mailer especially adds a great deal to the climatic fight, describing Ali's locker room scene where he had to lift the spirits of his somber trainers (who were convinced that their man would be destroyed) and illuminating Ali's unorthodox strategy against the seemingly invincible Foreman. Mailer's description of the "fear" in Ali's eyes seems off base. The camera gives a great shot of Ali's eyes on the chair after the first round, and the look appears more of an analytical “gut” check than anything—the fear comes from Mailer's own perceptions of Foreman.

Including excerpts from film director Spike Lee to serve as a cultural transition to the modern day is inspired. Lee brought Malcolm X to life in his 1992 docu-drama that helped educate youth about the Muslim leader's importance, and he hopes that youth will become inspired by Muhammad Ali’s example here. Those who weren't around in the 1960s and 70s to hear the brash bravado of the cocky “kid” from Louisville turn into the controversial and charismatic Black Muslim, previously have only heard legends from the older generation and seen brief clips on sports shows.

In those days, Ali was much more than the heavyweight champion—he was truly worshipped as a king and was the most widely recognized man on the planet. The documentary reveals why to younger generations and reminds older people what boxing once was. Today, it's hard to determine the definitive Heavyweight champion—with controversial decisions and too many competing federations boxing has lost much of its luster and it no longer gets the same kind of media coverage.

When We Were Kings returns us to a time when boxing represented much more than a sport, a time when one man dominated the scene like no other champion has done before or since. Ali dominates the documentary as well—whether in the archive footage where he describes how "ugly" Sonny Liston is, on the plane describing his amazement at being flown by real black Africans, or during the training sessions in Zaire. Gast never makes a mistake by turning the camera on Ali—he comes through like a champ every time.

Muhammad Ali was a poet-warrior coming to maturity when adolescent America was grappling with a greater awareness of racism and its resulting poverty. As charming as he was controversial, Ali became the most widely recognized person on the planet. Before evaluating how accurately Will Smith represents the champ in Ali, be sure to watch the real deal.

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