Saturday, November 2, 2019


In Zaire, ca. 1974, two fighters arrived from America to participate in Rumble in the Jungle. Former champion Muhammad Ali was looking to take back the title belt by besting then-champion George Foreman. It was a huge event, bringing a worldwide spotlight on Africa that had never really been seen before.

Filmmaker Leon Gast went along for the ride, filming the lead-up to the fight, the celebrations and the preparations, capturing the whole of the experience, not just the main event. More than twenty years later he cut the material together as a documentary feature. When We Were Kings is a historical record. Time and distance has given perspective--as evinced by the contemporary commentators on hand, including Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, and Spike Lee--and in some ways, the story plays out better minus the suspense of who will win. This was a significant moment in time, with both fighters representing something in the cultural landscape.

Here, Ali is seen as the underdog, but also the people’s champion. For Africans, he is a symbol of self-determination and victory. He is friendly and embracing. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Foreman is seen as unapproachable and single-minded. He is the gruff commercialist, even though Ali is all that much better at selling himself. Ali is a folk hero, and the Rumble almost takes on the mythic quality of the individualist toppling the system. It certainly is a David and Goliath moment.

Though, not all is perfect in Africa, and When We Were Kings does not shy away from it. At the time, President Mobutu Sese Seko ruled the country with a false air of democracy. His dictatorial nature and the gulf between leader and followers, rich and poor, hangs over everything. In some way, this all has to please him, too. This makes Ali’s activism all the more inspiring to the people of Zaire. Here is a man who has punched at authority and won.

And to be fair, Foreman probably deserves a little more credit for getting to where he was. When We Were Kings has a definite bias in favor of Ali. Foreman might have fared better under a more sympathetic lens, but it’s not just Gast who is looking at these two men, it’s everyone around them. As the fight is delayed by six weeks due to Foreman suffering an injury during a practice bout, the whole thing turns into a pressure cooker. The winner, we will see, is the man who can handle that stress better. It’s interesting to consider the light-hearted figure George Foreman would later become.

Gast keeps the commentary to a minimum, favoring the necessary over the flowery. Mailer’s explanations of fight technique and his memory of the play-by-play is most essential if you’re not a pugilism aficionado. He and Plimpton were on the scene covering the match for their respective press venues. As a blowhard raconteur, Mailer is perfectly suited to making the large seem relatable.

This is the second Muhammad Ali documentary I watched this year. The other was HBO’s two-part What’s My Name, a career-spanning examination of the man’s journey from Cassius Clay to champion to activist and the cycle of victory and defeat that came to define his later career. The Zaire period was touched on in that film, but When We Were Kings goes much deeper. It makes me wish there were more docs of its kind to fill out the history that What’s My Name establishes--like supplemental footnotes, “for more go here.” Between the two movies, I’ve found an even greater respect for a great man. When We Were Kings is not just about the spectacle of a sports event, but about the business and societal needs that inform it. It’s about an artist trying to maintain his integrity when all around him would exploit him. It’s about the struggle of people of color to find their own way when the greater machine would rather grind them down.

It’s also about a celebration. Ali’s triumph wasn’t entirely his own, but also a triumph for his supporters, admirers, and peers. Hence folks like James Brown, Bill Withers, and BB King heading to Africa to perform at a three-day music festival presented in conjunction with the Rumble. This was documented, as well, and while touched upon in When We Were Kings, Criterion fans are a treated to a second full-length documentary on their discs: the 2008 concert film Soul Power.

Directed by Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte, Soul Power chronicles the efforts to put the show on, while also highlighting the best performances. The bill is a combo of the visiting American acts and the best that Zaire has to offer. For the artists involved, it’s a kind of musical exchange. As Withers notes, the Americans can present how they’ve evolved the African sound their mutual ancestors brought across the ocean, while also witnessing how those sounds continued to evolve on their own in the homeland.

Interestingly, the concert faced some of the same challenges as the boxing match--Mubutu was against it, Foreman’s injury threw off the timing--but is more celebratory by nature. This is the party before the war. You might even consider watching it first, as your own lead into the main event.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

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