When We Were Kings

Directed by Leon Gast. (1996, PG, 85 min.)

REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., March 28, 1997

When We Were Kings

Boxing, Don King, and Muhammad Ali are synonymous in the minds of many with decadent bloodsport, sleaze, and tragedy respectively. But for a fleeting moment in 1974, all were central figures in a miraculous confluence of pop culture flash and deep sociopolitical import that seems, if anything, more remarkable now than it did then. This Academy Award-winning documentary by Leon Gast (The Dead, Hell's Angels Forever) revisits the storied “Rumble in the Jungle” heavyweight title fight in which a rusty and thirtyish Ali squared off with the awesome young champ George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. The stunning vitality and passion of this film arises not only from the high-voltage personalities involved (especially Ali and King) but from the way they galvanized political and ethnic pride among the people of the poor West African nation. Ali's bold defiance of the draft, his embrace of Islam, and, of course, his wild eloquence and physical beauty elevated him to the status of a black demigod in their eyes. His flamboyant posturing and poetic self-aggrandizement operated on two levels. Superficially, of course, it was simple macho gamesmanship. But deeper down, it was a thrilling assertion of black pride that unified the kid from Louisville, Kentucky with ethnic Africans in a soul-deep bond. New interviews with journalists who covered the event (including George Plimpton and Norman Mailer), along with contemporary commentators such as Spike Lee, perceptively describe how Ali and King recognized and exploited this cultural subtext. Since the Rumble, Foreman has become a compelling figure in his own right. Yet his obliviousness to the symbolism of the moment relegated him, fairly or not, to the status of a foil for Ali. Pulsing through the film is a live, raw current of great African and African-American music, including stellar performances by the likes of James Brown, Miriam Makeba, B.B. King, and the Fugees. Their propulsive energy perfectly complements that of the amazing Ali interview footage and the brief yet engrossing analysis of the fight itself. Strangely, though, a distinct sense of melancholy arises from this ebullient music and Gast's brilliant reportage of an event so joyous and heady. Today we know of Muhammad Ali's sad fate; we hear the prevailing bitterness and nihilism in modern “reality rap” music; we see regression, not progress, in Central African society. Still, as Gast's title suggests, even the knowledge of past glory is pregnant with hope for the present day.

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