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WHEN WE WERE KINGS

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Nov. 29, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: This Oscar-winning documentary is an example of a film that sincerely deserves its new Blu-ray upgrade, courtesy of the boutique label Criterion Collection. My review was published in the Deseret News on May 9, 1997. This is one to watch with young people. If, as suggested at the end of the review, younger folk were unaware of the significance of this event in 1997, how many young people know about it 22 years later?

Muhammad Ali himself dubbed it the “Rumble in the Jungle.”

And when he decided to try and regain his title form the formidable reigning heavyweight boxing champ George Foreman, it became a much anticipated event in the fall of 1974, surrounded by a circus-like atmosphere as it settled into the small African host country of Zaire.

The remarkable documentary “When We Were Kings” (which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 1996) shows that it was also much more than merely another bout. This event holds a place in history.

Here’s a note of encouragement for all you non-boxing fans out there — don’t let the stigma of this being a “sports movie” keep you away. “When We Were Kings” is much more.

The fight itself can be viewed elsewhere, but documentary filmmaker Leon Gast has come up with something here that is much more significant — after spending two months chronicling the event itself, and then another 22 years putting it together in editing rooms.

Last month Gast won an Oscar for his effort and it was certainly deserved.

     

Muhammad Ali gets billing above the title, and the film is primarily about what this matchup did for his place in the annals of boxing, and as an influential black figure in American history.

Gast makes a strong case for Ali’s talent, his business acumen, his brilliance as a tactician, and more to the point, suggests he deserves much of the credit for the “black pride” movement among black Americans.

The “Rumble” helped bridge the cultural gap between African blacks and American blacks, and Ali, Foreman, entertainers such as James Brown and B.B. King, and, significantly, Don King, all played serious roles in making it happen. Although the motivations for some were a bit different at the time.

Putting things into perspective are onscreen interviewees who help boil down the convoluted circumstances surrounding the event into an understandable narrative. Among them are George Plimpton and Norman Mailer, who were in Zaire to cover the event for different publications, and whose memories are vivid and passionate, along with Spike Lee and Ali’s biographer Thomas Hauser.

The film begins with a brief history of Ali’s career up to that point in time, and later there are necessary digressions into the history of Zaire and its controversial dictator Mobutut Sese Seko.

One of the most startling elements, which is quite instructive about Ali’s personality, comes when Foreman suffers a cut over his eye and the fight is postponed for six weeks. While much of the contingent returns home, Ali sticks around and uses his natural charisma to woo the locals as he continues to train.

     

As a result, when the fight finally comes off, 99 percent of the crowd is cheering for Ali! And though it was Ali’s unexpected strategy that ultimately won the fight, the whooping audience — yelling in unison, “Ali bomoya!” (“Ali, kill him!”) — certainly helped.

At the end of the movie, someone notes how George Foreman has since reinvented himself, and indeed it’s hard to believe that the Foreman we see here is the same gregarious, charming gentleman we know today.

As for Ali, the film simply verifies something that those of us who lived through the ’60s and ’70s already knew — that he was startlingly charismatic and intelligent, an amazingly talented boxer and … as he might say himself … quite pretty.

Spike Lee notes near the end of the film that too many contemporary young people are unaware of recent history, and they have no comprehension of the implications of events like this.

He’s right, of course.

But they will if they see Gast’s film.

“When We Were Kings” is rated PG for boxing violence, a couple of profanities and a vulgar remark or two, along with a flash of partial nudity.