WHEN WE WERE KINGS
(director: Leon Gast; cinematographer: Albert Maysles/Kevin Keating/Maryse Alberti/Paul Goldsmith/Roderick Young; editor: Leon Gast/Taylor Hackford/Jeffrey Levy-Hinte/Keith Robinson; cast: Muhammad Ali, George Forman, Don King, James Brown, BB King, President Mobuto Sese Seko, Spike Lee, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton; Runtime: 84; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: David Sonenberg/Taylor Hackford/Leon Gast; Image Entertainment; 1996)
“Wonderful sports documentary covering the 1974 heavyweight championship fight in Zaire.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Leon Gast, a young concert filmmaker, directs this wonderful sports documentary covering the 1974 heavyweight championship fight in Zaire between former champ, the 32-year-old Muhammad Ali and the current champ, the 26-year-old undefeated George Foreman. It was known as the ‘rumble in the jungle,’ and had an underdog Ali reclaim the championship in an exciting bout that was pivotal in changing Foreman’s personality and approach to boxing in the future. It was held in Zaire’s capital city of Kinshasa, and in a 70,000-seat soccer stadium that was rumored to have been the scene of mass executions held by the country’s dictator. The blood was washed cleaned before the fight.
Zaire is the unstable country in Africa in which the ruthless dictator President Mobuto headed and he put up the ten million dollar purse money for the fight. It was promoted by the slick Don King, who promised each fighter five million dollars. Gast was there to record the three-day music festival which preceded the bout, that included James Brown, Miriam Makeba and BB King. But he stayed on to record the fight that was delayed for six weeks after Foreman was cut while sparring.
The film goes much further than just covering the boxing match, as it has the running commentaries throughout from Norman Mailer, George Plimpton and Spike Lee. With Lee’s commentary being more philosophical and about black pride more than about the event itself since he wasn’t there and he only gives an account of how important it was for blacks in America to have the fight between two African-Americans held in Africa. Mailer’s comments seemed inspired about both the ironies of the almost surreal spectacle (held in a dictatorship and with Ali remaining true to his vision though surrounded by charlatans) and his insightful boxing analysis. It also covers the contrasts in personalities between the brooding, brutish, laconic and stoic Foreman and the outgoing, charismatic, cocky, witty and rebellious Ali who got the ire of the white establishment when he joined the Black Muslim movement and later chose jail over being drafted during the time of the Vietnam War. He was not only a conscientious objector, but was outspoken against the war. As a result, Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship title. He was one of only a few athletes who ever merged sports and politics so successfully, and is not only considered the best fighter ever by many but by many blacks around the world he’s thought of as a religious prophet who worked diligently to bring about black brotherhood. This film gives those who never saw him in his prime, the opportunity to not only witness his boxing skills (letting Foreman punch himself out while he took the punishment and did his famous rope-a-dope) but people skills.
Gast ran into money problems and it took court battles and some 23 years before it got released, but it was worth the wait. The documentary delivers great shots of the fight and remains enthralling for its close-up look at Ali, who loves the camera and supplies all the acting needed in the three-ring circus atmosphere brought on by the fight.
REVIEWED ON 5/24/2007 GRADE: A