When We Were Kings

18 Mar

When We Were Kings

When We Were Kings captures Muhammad Ali at his greatest.

Leon Gast’s feisty documentary chronicles the events surrounding the 1974 boxing extravaganza between Muhammad Ali and George Forman in Zaire. Financed by dictator President Mobutu with $10 million from his country’s reserves, the infamous “Rumble in the Jungle” cast Ali as the underdog for the first time in nearly a decade. He had been inactive in professional boxing for several years after being arrested and then stripped of the heavyweight title for refusing to serve in Vietnam. At age 32 he was making this his comeback fight, but no one, not even longtime adherent Howard Cosell, gave Ali a chance against the then taciturn Forman, who was considered unbeatable after mowing down the likes of Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. The poetic and prophetic Ali saw things differently: “If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait till I kick Foreman’s behind.”

It took more than 20 years for Gast to bring his material to the big screen. Originally he was chartered to film the African cultural festival that was to be an appetizer while Forman and Ali went about their training. Then Forman cut himself sparring and the bout was delayed six weeks. The adjournment gave Gast the opportunity to shoot the boxers, but later his two Liberian financiers were murdered during a military coup, leaving no funds to finish the film until 1995, when director Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman) stepped in as a producer and editor.

Gast brought back more than 450 hours of footage and Hackford shot additional interviews to provide the historical retrospective. Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, who were at ringside to record the affair, elaborate on the mood of the time and provide sprightly insights into Ali’s psyche. Also on hand is the always opinionated Spike Lee, who pops up from time to time to interject his two cents. Ali and Forman appear on screen only in their prime. It would have been interesting to contrast the sleek Forman of ’74 with the preset portly Midas Muffler spokesperson, but to have shown Ali, now afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, would have been unfair and inappropriate.

And it’s Ali’s charismatic presence that makes When We Were Kings so appealing. He gravitates to the camera naturally; love him or hate him, there’s no denying his legacy. Hackford and Gast chisel the hours of celluloid into a compelling and comprehensive result (which gained them an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary), but at times they flirt with the notion of a grandiose social statement that never materializes. Gast’s real-life Rocky is a crowd pleaser that works best when the man who “floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee” is dancing and prancing. The potent musical performances by B.B. King and James Brown are an added pleasure, and it’s an obscene amusement to watch Don King squirm into bed with Zaire’s dictatorship in order to launch his dubious career.

— Tom Meek

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