When We Were Kings

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Leon Gast.

By Reece Pendleton

Muhammad Ali is everywhere again, from television documentaries to books with such improbable titles as The Tao of Muhammad Ali and his own Healing: A Journal of Tolerance and Understanding to his much-publicized appearance at the Olympics last summer. But despite the wave of public adoration–greater, perhaps, than at any point during his remarkable career as a boxer–there was a time, in the late 60s and early 70s, when Ali was one of the most disliked black men in America.

Handsome, charismatic, successful, witty, and brimming with an almost euphoric energy, Cassius Clay enraged much of the white establishment by joining the Black Muslim movement and insisting that he be called by his new name, Muhammad Ali (for years, many in the sports press contemptuously continued to call him Cassius). And in 1967 he delivered the ultimate slap in the face to the establishment by refusing induction into the army on the grounds of conscientious objection; even more offensive, he spoke out publicly and unapologetically about his opposition to the Vietnam war. For this Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship title, had his boxing license suspended, and was tried and convicted for refusing induction, a process that effectively barred him from boxing for three and a half years–just as he was reaching the peak of his skill.

But to many, Ali is a brilliant example of what it means to lead a principled and joyful life, especially in the face of adversity. Stripped of his livelihood and facing considerable hostility, he remained true to his religious and political convictions. He continued to speak passionately about the things that were important to him, and he answered his enemies without bitterness.

The qualities that make Ali such a remarkable figure are very much on display in When We Were Kings, Leon Gast’s entertaining documentary about Ali’s amazing 1974 fight in Zaire to reclaim the championship from George Foreman. Though ostensibly the film is about the “Rumble in the Jungle,” as the fight came to be known, its heart is Ali, the man who made such a lasting impression on a generation–brash and confident despite the odds, predicting victory, urging black Americans to feel proud of who they are, preaching to kids about leading responsible lives (everything from staying off dope to “helping me whip Mr. Tooth Decay!”), praising Allah, and, as always, using his marvelous wit to convey his messages.

Yet the story of Ali’s fight in Zaire is extraordinary in its own right: Jack Newfield tells it wonderfully in his biography of Don King, Only in America. And while the film touches on many of the event’s outlandish aspects, it never does full justice (if that’s the right term) to what is a truly surreal tale.

The fight was put together largely through the machinations of King, then only three years out of prison for manslaughter. He got Ali and Foreman to sign contracts and promised each of them $5 million, though he had no financing in place. Eventually the $10 million came from a most unlikely source: Mobutu Sese Seko, Zaire’s ruthless, corrupt dictator. Seeking to boost his image internationally, Mobutu realized that hosting the Ali-Foreman fight would be a public-relations coup. But to pull it off, he had to perform a rapid face-lift on Zaire’s capital, Kinshasa, and repair the crumbling 70,000-seat soccer stadium where the fight was to take place.

To that end, Mobutu dug deep into the dwindling public coffers: over six months he spent an additional $10 million to build a new runway for large airliners, fix up the stadium (which apparently included washing away the blood and feces of prisoners Mobutu held there for execution, a tale Norman Mailer vividly relates in the movie), add lights and a parking lot to the stadium, build a new telecommunications system with satellite hookups, install a hundred new phone lines, provide an opulent bar for the press, construct a four-lane highway (formerly a dirt road) to get the reporters and glitterati to the stadium from their hotels, and to top it all off, erect huge billboards along the highway singing Zaire’s praises and conveniently hiding the squalid housing conditions otherwise easily visible from the road. It was a multimillion-dollar spending spree designed strictly to benefit Mobutu in a PR war against his insane Ugandan rival, Idi Amin, financed by Zaire’s impoverished citizens.

Gast, a young documentary filmmaker with experience in making concert films, was hired to cover the event. But his promised funding mysteriously vanished shortly after the fight, and Gast spent the better part of 20 years fighting in court for the rights to the footage and struggling to raise the funds needed to complete the film.

It’s a good thing he got them: he was given virtually unlimited access to every part of what quickly turned into an entertainment circus. In addition to the fight, King and his cohorts staged a three-day celebration at the stadium of African and African-American music and culture that featured the likes of James Brown, the Spinners, Miriam Makeba, B.B. King, and the Crusaders. Gast includes a number of superbly filmed and recorded scenes from the concert, most notably James Brown in a riotous performance of “Doing It to Death” and B.B. King singing “Sweet Sixteen,” but the center of the film is the amazing fight itself. Foreman, the reigning champion, was at the time a far different man physically and personally than the gregarious, lovable, snack-eating preacher he is today. In 1974 Foreman was a brooding, sullen 25-year-old not unlike Mike Tyson in many ways, the product of one of Houston’s worst neighborhoods. Undefeated at the time, he was a fearsome puncher who’d easily demolished Joe Frazier and Ken Norton–two men who had already beaten Ali–and the three-to-one favorite going into the fight in Zaire.

Many who’d seen Ali’s lackluster sparring bouts during training feared for his life, including some folks in his own camp. But Ali responded to the naysayers with a characteristic blend of braggadocio, preaching, and humor. In one of the film’s funniest moments, a triumph of editing, footage of a long-winded Howard Cosell predicting certain doom for Ali at Foreman’s hands is intercut with Ali’s taunting response, which closes with one of his classic impromptu rhymes. Pointing into the camera, he bellows, “I’m gonna tell everyone that that thing on your head is nothing but a phony, and that it comes from the tail of a pony!” (In face-to-face interviews with Cosell, Ali was possibly the only person on earth who could get him to shut up.)

Gast does a nice job of building the suspense leading up to the fight, fleshing out the story with some good color commentary by a handful of people (filmed by director Taylor Hackford, who wisely convinced Gast that these reminiscences and remarks would fill in some historical gaps). Among the entertaining, informative commentators are the very engaging Mailer, George Plimpton, Ali’s biographer Thomas Hauser, and Zairean artist Malik Bowens.

On the night of the fight Ali pulled off an almost miraculous upset, suggesting that he was perhaps the greatest ring tactician of all time. Foreman clearly had the edge when it came to punching power, but Ali had the psychological advantage and used it brilliantly, doing the opposite of everything Foreman (and Ali’s own corner) had expected, verbally taunting Foreman in the ring, letting him punch himself into exhaustion, playing possum using the now-legendary rope-a-dope strategy, waiting patiently until Foreman grew vulnerable, then finishing him off in the eighth round to the shock of nearly everyone watching. If Ali ever doubted that he could win, he never showed it.

If the experts had Foreman picked, the film is clear on the popular favorite, at least in Zaire. We see Ali greeted at the airport in Kinshasa by throngs of cheering Zaireans, and Foreman arriving to a rather pathetic-looking welcome from a military band and a handful of government diplomats. Both men trained in Kinshasa–in fact, a lot longer then they’d planned. Ten days before the fight one of Foreman’s sparring partners opened a cut over Foreman’s right eye, throwing the whole fight into jeopardy. To ensure that no one would leave, Mobutu actually had members of the military surround both fighters’ camps. After several days of uncertainty, it was decided that the music festival would go on as planned but that the fight would be postponed for six weeks.

While Foreman glumly retreated to the confines of his hotel and made his unhappiness about being in Zaire very clear, Ali took the six-week delay as an excuse to do what he did best next to boxing: talk to people. With great relish he entertained the press and the public, traveling into the countryside to meet the people of Zaire and appearing to enjoy every minute of it.

In a wonderful scene toward the end of the film, Ali is seen jogging down a dusty road somewhere in Zaire. Stopping to take a break, he suddenly begins dancing around, shadowboxing with the camera. Bobbing and weaving, he exhorts the cameraman, who can barely keep up with him, to “come get me, sucker!” He shouts, “I’m dancin’! I’m dancin’!” and “Follow me, chump! No, I’m not there, I’m here!” As Ali is unleashing a volley of rapid-fire punches, Gast freezes on his face and slowly fades it out. It’s an exhilarating moment that in its own ineffable way captures Ali’s vitality as a fighter and as a person.

The film should have ended here, but unfortunately Gast doesn’t trust the great story he’s just told and inserts a montage sequence of Ali’s career, coupled with a mawkish contemporary pop ballad on the sound track. With all the incredible music from the Zaire concert available to him, it’s almost scandalous that he resorts to such mediocre material, trying to make the story “relevant” to today’s audience.

Despite the unfortunate detour, however, When We Were Kings does a better job of showing us how Ali endeared himself to people than any other documentary I’ve seen. What Gast intuits, and what the film conveys so well, is that the whole messy event in Zaire is a microcosm of Ali’s life. With the odds seemingly stacked against him, and surrounded by press, performers, crooks, and charlatans of every stripe, Ali triumphed, and he did so by staying true to his vision and trusting in his own talents.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.