When We Were Kings

When We Were Kings. Polygram 1996.

Before watching the movie:

I had heard of the “Rumble in the Jungle” before, but I didn’t really understand it as much more than a trivia question. A sport, two names, and a date. Honestly, whenever I pictured it, something more like the cover to “Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali” came to mind, and that’s all.

I had no idea there was a documentary about it until I went looking for theatrical documentaries. Now that I know, of course there would be a documentary, but I hadn’t heard about it before. Even though it didn’t come out until late enough that I would have been around to hear about the release.

After watching the movie:

Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight boxing championship set records for longevity, but when he refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War, he was stripped of his titles along with serving jail time. Once he left prison and returned from his suspension from boxing, he was hungry to reclaim his title. However, another titan had arisen in heavyweight boxing. An Olympic gold medalist, George Foreman made a name for himself on power and dominance, and still much younger than Ali, Foreman is now the holder of the championship Ali insists should still be his. Don King, boxing promoter, manages to get Ali and Foreman to sign contracts that they would both fight for the championship and a $5 million payout win or lose, and then goes off to find a partner who actually has that ten million dollars. King finds that partner in Mobutu Sese Seko, military dictator of Zaire, who believes that the goodwill and publicity from hosting a world-stage event in Kinshasa would be a better use of his country’s resources than any kind of public use for the nation, and a worldwide pay per view fight is arranged, along with a three-day music festival, “Zaire ’74”, headlined by James Brown and BB King. As Ali and Foreman prepare for their fight, Ali wins more popularity among the people of Zaire, but among those who know the boxing world, it seems the only person who believes Muhammad Ali won’t be completely humiliated is Muhammad Ali.

I didn’t realize until very late in the movie, pretty much to the fight itself, that it’s much more in Ali’s perspective than Foreman’s. Ali has extensive archival footage of interviews and training, but Foreman is more outside the narrative. Of course, if I’d seen a poster like the one above, I might have been more primed for it, but I saw no posters ahead of time, and I had thought for a while that Ali was more present just because he’s a more colorful character. I would’ve liked more of Foreman’s perspective, but he’s essentially the villain in Ali’s story, and instead of a clash of titans, the story presented is more of an underdog comeback. I’m particularly more interested in Foreman’s perspective because the young, Afroed, moustachioed, serious business fighter he was in the 70s is completely unrecognizable to me as someone who has only known the hairless, quirky seller of grills and oil changes.

I really felt the music was a distraction. I had never heard of the Zaire ’74 festival, and that was kind of interesting to find out about. I also think I understand what the film was getting at drawing a connection between African-rooted music and African-American sports excellence, I also just felt the blues music had no real connection to throwing punches and clashing egos and I wanted to get back to the real story. There was also maybe less attention than I would have liked paid to the strained history of Zaire and the Mobutu regime, and how that reflects on the match.

The range of interviewees are a bit odd. While there’s a rich amount of archive footage, often intimate training footage that was probably shot for the documentary (which took decades to complete), the modern day interviews are a couple of older writers (Norman Mailer and George Plimpton) providing the sports journalism context, and Spike Lee providing the African-American cultural context. One of Spike Lee’s final comments is that “the kids today” don’t know even their recent history, which I could perhaps agree with more since I didn’t know anything about the Rumble In The Jungle, except he goes on to name civil rights figures I was definitely learning about in school when this movie came out. (Other school systems will vary.) Anyway, even though the movie took 22 years to complete and financing was a struggle, I would’ve liked to see some more interviews with people who had been involved at the time. I would perhaps prefer scripted narration over these afterthought interviews.

My overall impression of this movie is that it’s a bit muddled, possibly as a consequence of its delayed production. Even trying to compensate for how much this was not the movie about the Rumble in the Jungle that I wanted, I’m not sure it’s the movie the director wanted more than the movie the director was able to drag into theaters. It has the immense gift of having all this archive footage of media icon boxing champions and intimate documentary footage from the event, but there’s so much that could have been better in the execution.


One thought on “When We Were Kings

  1. Valerie May 1, 2023 / 10:58 am

    so you will definitely see the newly released Big George Foreman? Might be worth reviewing it here, due to its relationship to your comments above, despite departure from the stated blog theme.

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