Friday October 25, 1996
Muhammad Ali in his prime was a potent, prodigious talker with a genius for the playful and the poetic. More charismatic than most actors, his presence alone makes "When We Were Kings" a special event.
A documentary centering on the famous "Rumble in the Jungle," the 1974 heavyweight championship fight between Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, "Kings" has been a work in progress for 22 years.
Director Leonard Gast came back from Africa after the Foreman-Ali fight with something like 450 hours of footage dealing with the event as well as its accompanying world music festival. But varying kinds of problems (paying the lab bill alone took almost 15 years) kept his film from being completed.
In 1995, director Taylor Hackford (who has a producing as well as an editing credit here) became involved with the project. He shot a series of strong new interviews with writers Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, who were ringside in Zaire, and other interested parties like filmmaker Spike Lee and Ali biographer Thomas Hauser.
The resulting film does have a makeshift quality to it, with the new footage, old newsreel shots, circa 1974 interviews, film of the fight and the concerts stitched together in a kind of cinematic crazy quilt. But because a classic heavyweight championship fight, especially with these protagonists, epitomizes the drama inherent in sport, "When We Were Kings" always compels our interest.
When Don King, who lived the phrase "wily promoter," got Zaire's despotic ruler Mobutu Sese Seko to offer each fighter $5 million, champion Foreman was the 25-year-old young lion and challenger Ali looked to be fading from the scene. Even Ali partisan Howard Cosell is shown in an on-camera clip saying, absent a miracle, "the time may have come to say goodbye to Muhammad Ali."
Only Ali seemed to feel differently, and one of the lures of this film is to hear the many and various ways he verbally takes on the man he calls "a big, bad monster who knocks everybody out and no one can whup him." Ali called the champion "the Mummy" for his alleged awkwardness in the ring, and rhapsodized, "If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait till I kick Foreman's behind."
A mesmerizing talker on any and all subjects, Ali is seen discoursing on Chinese music, on how excited he is to be in Africa, even on the perils of, no kidding, Mr. Tooth Decay, advising young fans to quit eating so much candy and focus on natural foods. Though he liked to claim he was "so mean I make medicine sick," Ali on camera was so irresistibly gregarious he may be that rare public figure who never said a dull word.
As for the champion, despite his physical prowess (Mailer says that watching Foreman hit the heavy bag was "one of the more prodigious sights I've ever seen in my life"), he never seemed comfortable in Africa, and a six-week delay in the fight due to a cut over his right eye made things worse. Ali, by contrast, thrived in Zaire, and among other things used the extra time to formulate a ring strategy that surprised everyone.
If the vintage footage of Ali is the heart of the film, the new interviews done by Hackford are also effective. Lee and African actor Malik Bowens described the impact Ali had on their respective communities, and Mailer, Plimpton and Hauser do excellent jobs analyzing everyone's state of mind and the fight itself. Least interesting at this point is the footage relating to the music festival, which has not held up well.
Though Ali's problems with Parkinson's disease may have kept him off camera, it's a shame that a much-changed George Foreman was not interviewed for his thoughts today. Because it's the difference between what we know now about the two fighters and what we see happening in 1974 that gives "When We Were Kings" a poignancy it would not have had if it hadn't been kept in the can for all those years.
When We Were Kings, 1996. Unrated. Released by Gramercy Pictures. Director Leon Gast. Producers David Sonenberg, Leon Gast, Taylor Hackford. Executive producer David Sonenberg. Cinematographers Maryse Alberti, Paul Goldsmith, Kevin Keating, Albert Maysles, Roderick Young. Editors Leon Gast, Taylor Hackford, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, Keith Robinson. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.