It is befitting that I leave the game just like I came in,
beating a big bad monster who knocks out everybody and no one can whup him.
So when little Cassius Clay from Louisville, Kentucky, came up to stop Sonny Liston,
the man who annihilated Floyd Patterson twice. HE WAS GONNA KILL ME!
But he hit harder than George. His reach is longer than George's. He's a better boxer than George.
And I'm better now than I was when you saw that 22-years old undeveloped kid running from Sonny Liston.
I'm experienced now, professional.
Jaws been broke, been knocked down a couple of times, I'm bad! Been chopping trees.
I done something new for this fight. I done wrestled with an alligator. That's right. I have wrestled with an alligator.
I done tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail. That's bad!
Only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick! I'm so mean I make medicine sick!
- Muhammad Ali, prior to his 1974 fight with George Foreman
When We Were Kings
The untold story of the Rumble in the Jungle
Produced by Leon Gast and David Sonenberg
Winner, Best Feature-Length Documentary, 1997 Academy Awards
When We Were Kings is a documentary that paints an intimate portrait of the Rumble in the Jungle, the 1974 heavyweight boxing championship match between champion George Foreman and challenger Muhammad Ali, held in Kinshasha, Zaire (today known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo). The documentary does several things extremely well, but falls short in a few others. More so than any other successful documentary I've seen, the film feels as though it is made up of several very short documentaries on the same general topic spliced together, and it's easier to look at each of these pieces on their own before commenting on how they all fit together.
No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger.
- Muhammad Ali
Ali in Zaire
It's hard to argue that the focus of the film is anything other than Muhammad Ali himself, and this is where the strength of the film lies. When We Were Kings does something to Ali that very few other modern documentaries try to do: it correctly paints him as a person with a very wide cultural influence, not just as a loud and arrogant boxer.
The early film gives a quick retrospective of the Ali legend that anyone even remotely familiar with the man will already know: a young fighter out of Louisville, Kentucky wins Olympic gold, then proceeds with great brashness to defeat the thuglike world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. After the fight, he changes his name to Muhammad Ali and adopts Islam as his faith, along with ties to the Nation of Islam. He eventually refuses to fight in Vietnam (he had no quarrel with the Viet Cong, in his words), and this stance causes him to be stripped of his title and be threatened with prison. Eventually, he comes back to boxing but is unable to defeat the current champion Joe Frazier, who wins their match in a judge's decision.
Ali then bides his time, losing to and then defeating Ken Norton while hoping for a rematch when suddenly George Foreman emerges, crushing Joe Frazier in two rounds and then quickly destroying Ken Norton in two rounds as well. Ali defeats Frazier in a rematch and the fight is in place.
This history is retold in a very brief montage early in the film that were well-executed enough that you could follow the general storyline even if you're unaware of boxing's history. This montage also paints a portrait of Ali as a very outspoken and controversial individual, painting a backdrop that is filled in with a great amount of detail throughout the documentary. Unfortunately, it is this backdrop that most people think of when they think of Ali; they miss out on the eloquent individual that is perhaps one of the best voices that ever lived in discussing racial issues on a global level.
The film shines brightest, in my opinion, when you see Ali as a wisened but yet still youthful man in his early to mid-30s, talking about the injustices he's seen and the things he can do with his media exposure to help with racial issues, particularly in building up the black community, and he backed this up by donating a good deal of money in places where it was needed. You began to get a much better picture of the man, one that is so often overlooked today, one that indicates that the brashness was in fact very much an extremely well-executed act in order to give Ali an opportunity to influence and affect the harsher edges of African-American culture where he could.
Ali's verbal skills, raw charisma, and total eloquence carry this film; so often, the film begins to lull, but there is Ali, like a shining beacon in the night.
A sizeable portion of the movie is given over to brief profiles of three rather frightening individuals associated with the fight, all of which cast long, frightening shadows over the fight.
The most obvious of these is George Foreman himself, who is very far removed from the charismatic grill salesman that most people think of today. He is an unstoppable force, the man who drubbed the previously invincible Joe Frazier in two rounds. He is immense in stature, very quiet, and keeps a German shepherd with him at all times. He is shown practicing with a heavy bag at one point in the film, punching it with all the force he could muster, and after his bout with the bag, it is left with a huge indentation where his punches have landed. Beyond this, he also had extremely good footwork for a man of his size and had practiced techniques for driving his opponents into the edges of the ring where they could be bludgeoned into submission with his huge, forceful punches. It's hard to see how anyone could have thought that Ali had much of a chance against this man, and thus the outcome of the fight made for an even bigger surprise, almost a David and Goliath type of ending.
Perhaps the biggest vulture to feast on the bout is Don King, the fight's promoter. This is the first major fight that King promoted and he had to make some rather nasty behind the scenes deals to pull it off. In this film, he is painted as an eloquent executioner: he spoke with a silver tongue, quoting the Bard, but at the same time was unabashedly cutting all sorts of deals. He was hedging his entire career on this match and that meant he would do anything to make sure the fight went off as planned; the gamble paid off for him.
Yet the most frightening figure in the whole documentary was Zaire's president, Mobutu Sésé Seko. Mobutu had fought his way to power in Zaire under extremely shady circumstances and he was determined to show off Zaire as a nation on the rise. The documentary hinted at some of the dark things that Mobutu did and even openly discussed the fact that he used the areas under the stadium where the fight was held as his own personal political prison. It was claimed in the film that Mobutu used great amounts of force to frighten the nation into a very complacent state for the fight, even going so far as to randomly kill those suspected of criminal behavior in order to frighten the less orderly elements to stay in line. Much like other dictators, there were constant portraits of Mobutu in various scenes, including posters of him lining the walls in Zaire's cities and a huge portrait of him overlooking the stadium where the fight took place. It was creepy in a Stalinesque way.
A Cultural Festival
Perhaps the most unexpected portion of the documentary was the continuous interjection of live music from a variety of acts, including B.B. King, James Brown, and The Spinners. These musicians were all part of a large concert held in conjunction with the bout, as part of Don King's great promotional vision of the fight. King promoted the fight as a bridge between African-American culture and its African heritage, and the fight occurred at the right moment in history for such a cultural bridge.
The entire soundtrack of the film comes from this concert, with funk, rhythm, blues, and jazz music filling the scenes with beautiful sounds of the moment. Intermixed with this were several performances from local musicians, including a very atmospheric performance from Miriam Makeba performing Am Am Pondo. Makeba's performance is so strong, in fact, that pieces of it show up again and again throughout the documentary, a wild-eyed woman performing a mysterious song almost completely alien to these Western ears.
The music flows through this documentary and the meeting of cultures is also represented quite well, including film of several discussions among the principals (Ali, Brown, and King in particular, along with Zairean representatives) in which the challenges of exposing African culture to North America and vice versa are discussed, along with the importance of such exposures. These discussions cast a strong eye on Ali at this moment in time, where he was perhaps uniquely poised to become a cultural representative.
At points, though, the music almost becomes too much, and the sections of musical performances tend to drag on. The documentarians seem to be aware of this, and almost as if by magic, at every point when I considered fast forwarding the documentary a bit, they immediately cut away to something more interesting (usually Ali commenting on something or another).
Cultural Commentary: Plimpton and Mailer
The documentary features a number of commentators reflecting back twenty years after the fact. A few of the commentators (Spike Lee and Malick Bowens come to mind) are only on screen briefly and don't appear in the archival footage; on the other hand, Howard Cosell's commentary and thoughts only appear in the older footage, due to his untimely passing.
The two men that appear in both the older and the newer commentary are George Plimpton and Norman Mailer. Both of these men are passionate about boxing; both were at ringside during the Rumble in the Jungle and both contribute extensively to the commentary on the bout itself as well as the cultural relevance of the fight. Beyond this, both men are extremely well versed and speak with great eloquence on the fight, as you would come to expect from two of the best modern writers.
Plimpton's commentary expose a very wry observer and clever wordsmith, both in the old footage and the newer. His selection of anecdotes and methods of retelling the stories add greatly to the richness of the documentary.
Yet I felt I identified much better with the comments from Mailer, a writer that I intensely admire. Mailer's deconstruction of several scenes in the documentary, including many of the actual boxing scenes, approach pure genius; he has a gift for making these scenes come to life with his eloquent discussion of the event.
The power of this documentary is hitched to the back of Ali, but the richness of the documentary is greatly aided by the words coming from both Plimpton and Mailer.
Naturally, the film culminates with the Rumble in the Jungle itself, as it should. This fight is one of a handful of boxing matches that even the most cursory fan of professional boxing has seen at least a time or two, along with such bouts as the Ali-Frazier bouts and the Muhammad Ali-Liston bouts.
To those who are not fans of boxing, this match might seem to be not much different than any other one they've seen. Thankfully, this is the portion of the film where Norman Mailer really shines. He carefully deconstructs the fight from several angles, explaining Ali's use of the right hand lead in the first round and why it has psychological impact, Ali's incredible reaction after the end of the first round and what it signifies for the later psychology of the fight, a wonderful discussion of the "rope a dope" strategy that Ali employed in the second through the fifth round which basically tricked Foreman into punching himself into exhaustion, and then Ali's dominance at the end of the fight, using his body position to ensure that Foreman would go down to the mat and stay there when the final blows came.
The match is not shown in its entirety; clips suffice to show the essential storyline of the fight, so that viewers aren't forced to watch Ali be bludgeoned by Foreman for four rounds (yes, indeed, the second through the fifth rounds of that fight pretty much consist of Ali leaning on the ropes while Foreman pounds on him). Most of the attention is given to the first round, in which Ali angers Foreman with his right hand lead, and then the actual end of the fight.
Mailer really comes into his own with this fight deconstruction, taking the elements of boxing that make it a sweet science and laying them out in such a way that the non-fans can appreciate the artistry in the work of a true master of the form, as Muhammad Ali was.
This is an extremely well composed documentary and a joy to watch. It is relatively short (clocking in at under an hour and a half) and as entertaining as any mainstream Hollywood movie you'll watch this year. I also feel that it's important for anyone trying to understand the complexities of race relations in the United States to watch this film, as it does a mesmerizing job of exposing the challenges of the melting pot of America.
This is a documentary about boxing, but boxing is just a means to the real end here: painting a picture of the reality of that time when the Rumble in the Jungle captured the imaginations of so many.