When We Were Kings Review: Docs on the spot
The 'Rumble in the Jungle' or the fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974 act's as the center point of this Documentary. I might have just made many of you tune out as you think this is a boxing documentary. It isn't. Rather, Director Leon Gast utilizes this event as a centrifuge to plunge the viewer into the world of 1974. The fast pacing, music, and continual movement within the film, leave viewers entranced.
Documentary Director Leon Gast is a veteran of documentary films. Not only that, but he went to film the event in 1974 and his footage is just some of the more than 250 hours of film woven together into this majestic tapestry. As director, he had aproached larger topics, such as in Hell's Angels Forever (1983) or Our Latin Thing (Nuestra Cosa) (1972). However he had also displayed his strength in making Biography pieces which strove to put their subjects within a historical context. Some of his topics included Celia Cruz and B.B. King, but perhaps his most popular piece can be found in The Grateful Dead Movie (1974), a film that he co-directed with Jerry Garcia. In this documentary the experience of the fans shares limelight with the band caught up in the 'musicking' experience. Although he would make a later biography film of Muhammad Ali in The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013), the wider scope of this film breathes a vibrancy into it.
At its heart this story is about the rivalry between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. the story presented is so much more involved than that. Everything in this movie seems to be standing out and shouting "I am!" The setting of the fight for example, is Zaire. A country striving for self-rule as Dictator Mobutu strives to erase all memory of what was the Belgian Congo. This is part of the reason he sponsored the fight at the cost of 10 million dollars to showcase the fight. A young Don King is promoting a fight where failure is not an option. As a rain season had delayed the fight, a three day music festival was planned. Although at first it was supposed to feature traditional African music, promoters envisioned instead holding an 'African Woodstock.' Artists such as James Brown, B.B. King, the Spinners, and even the Pointer Sisters to name a few. "I am somebody," one musician extols the crowd to chant. Meanwhile in an interview James Brown sits next to Don King who reminds that in society: "we are only useful as long as we are necessary."
Ali, however, is quick to point out the destiny and importance of this fight. "This is going to be the first time top notch Blacks of America and the people of Africa have has something together. All on the world level.... Plus I gotta whoop George," he excitedly stated. Gast does an excellent job of utilizing the music from this festival to pepper and underlie his documentary.
In this the battle of the bulls, Muhammad Ali takes center stage. This was a good thing. His raw charisma, and braggadocio are used to convince all, even himself, that he was going to win. Why was this so important? Because Ali was the underdog. This is something that is easy for the viewer to forget. They now, just as back then, are trapped by the humor and believe his big talk. At the age of 32, his stance against the Vietnam War had prevented him from boxing for three and a half years. He knew he had to make a comeback, and it had to be big. This was something that effected his African fans. African artist Malik Bowens, talked of the excitement "Yes, we knew Muhammad Ali as a boxer, but ever more important we knew him as a political figure. ...he may have lost his title, he may have lost millions, but he gained the hearts of all Africans." Ali further strengthens the allegiance of the people of Zaire. Foreman meanwhile, though not as tall, was physically larger. He had not done as well against Joe Frazier and Ken Norton two fighters that Foreman had annihilated. All, including Howard Cosell had predicted Ali's failure against the younger and stronger George Foreman.
Norman Mailer and George Plimpton who had acted as journalists for the
fight, though modern interviews are used by Gast to show the viewer a peek behind the curtain and tell their observations of what really was going on. The observations ranged from events occurring around Zaire As well as give insights into moments of reflection that either of the boxers held. Spike Lee meanwhile presses the importance of Ali and this event in its contribution to the American culture.
By the time the viewers are led to the fight, Gast has done an excellent job of portraying the fact that Ali, who was riding on his big talk, now had to prove his words. Though the outcome of the fight is known, the beating taken by Ali and the comeback in the eighth round are riveting. With the energy and vibrancy this documentary holds, it is little surprise that it won the 1997 Academy Award for Best Documentary feature.
Director: Leon Gast
Cast: Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Don King, James Brown, B.B. King, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, and Spike Lee
Running Time: 84 min