'When We Were Kings' Is the Greatest Film Ever Made About Muhammad Ali

The classic documentary shows the Greatest at his most revolutionary during his run-up to fight George Foreman in Zaire in 1974.

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Jun 7 2016, 3:05pm

A crowd watches Muhammad Ali gesture triumphantly before his fight with George Foreman on October 30, 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire. Photo by George Walker/Liaison

It's strange to revisit Leon Gast and Taylor Hackford's 1996 Oscar-winning Rumble in the Jungle documentary When We Were Kings. The darkness that hangs over it is not just bound up in Muhammad Ali's passing last Friday, from septic shock, at age 74. So much of the world When We Were Kings evokes, where the tumult of the 60s was fresh enough for new ways of organizing society to still feel possible, seems gone now. Not just its star, but many of its key talking heads and verité performers, from Norman Mailer and George Plimpton to James Brown and B. B. King, have descended to their graves as well. Others, like Don King and Spike Lee, very much at the top of their respective games when the film was released, have faded into irrelevance or self-parody.

Muhammad Ali's uncanny, Twain-like perception and inimitable rapid-fire quips are the real stars of When We Were Kings. He was at his most magnetic in the run-up to the Foreman fight, where this most galvanizing of popular cultural figures shocked the world for a second time and cemented his legacy as one of the most enduring champions sports will ever know. "Yeah, I'm going to Africa. Yeah, Africa's my home," Ali says at the start of the film. "Damn America and what America thinks. Yeah I live in America, but Africa is the home of the black man, and I was a slave four hundred years ago, and I'm going to fight among my brothers," he continues, his slick Kentucky Negro cadence staking claim to pan-Africanism and a brand of "haunted by the white supremacist project of American life" Afrocentric victimization that is still very much at the heart of radical black American politics today. "Boy, it's the first free feeling I've ever had in a long time," Ali later observes in the cockpit of a Kinshasa-bound African airliner captained and crewed by other blacks. "This is strange to the American Negro. We never dreamed of this. And every time we watched television, they show us Tarzan and the natives and the jungles, they never told us about this, that Africans are more intelligent than we are. They speak English, French, and African. We can't even speak English good."

The fight remains a touchstone cultural event, much larger since it's an important contribution to Ali's remarkable, even singular legacy. A seismic and unprecedented sporting spectacle anticipated like no other before it, the Rumble in the Jungle was held in an African country (Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo) by a black American promoter with an unprecedented payout to the black American fighters—$5 million each—accompanied by a music festival featuring the pan-African world's most dynamic performers. It was a prize fight of a magnitude hard to fathom today. Back in 1974, boxing was still at the zenith of its international popularity largely because of the thrill people everywhere got out of watching mostly poor and working-class black men give one another Parkinson's and CTE. To watch a young Larry Holmes, Ali's sparring partner who would later defeat Ali at the end of his career, prepare the Greatest for Foreman's assault by savagely attacking his midsection is to watch a slow suicide of sorts. It's also a study in the unbreakable resilience of the sweet science's most memorable practitioner.

Ali, stripped of his heavyweight title and sentenced to five years in prison for refusing to comply with the US military's request that he kill Southeastern Asians in a war fought under false pretenses, was 32 in the fall of 1974. In front of Gast and Hackford's camera, his confidence never waivers, even though he is clearly no longer the young dynamo who had defeated Sonny Liston a decade before, vaulting himself to a celebrity never seen before—or since—as he became the country's most famous black dissident. Here Ali was, a converted Muslim who openly embraced black separatism with a undeniably singular voice, charming and colloquial, his radicalism tinged with quick rhymes and an indefatigable smile. His wit and words were unassailable, but to everyone watching the workouts, he was doomed.

Originally set for September 25, 1974, the Rumble in the Jungle was supposed to be accompanied by one of the great music festivals the world has ever known, featuring stars like James Brown, Bill Withers, B. B. King, and Miriam Makeba. But an injury to Foreman postponed the fight until October 30, so the concert more or less became its own thing. (The same archive of musical footage from When We Were Kings would be made into a startlingly entertaining companion piece about the Zaire concert, Soul Power.) When the two men finally got it on, at 4 AM to accommodate American television, Ali, a heavy underdog against the younger, stronger George Foreman, intentionally took a battering, employing a "rope-a-dope" strategy of tiring Foreman out by letting him wail away uncontested. With Foreman exhausted, Ali felled the 25-year-old heavyweight and future grill master for good in the eighth, a knockout that inspired the Congolese audience to chants of "Ali Bomaye!" (Ali kill him!)

But there is a troubling downside to this legacy of course, one When We Were Kings was made too early to confront. In the most bitter of ironies, this spectacle of black athletic excellence, self-determination, and entrepreneurial-savvy was sponsored by one of the world's most murderous dictators at the behest of one of its most cunning and untrustworthy figures. Joseph Mobuto Sese Seko, who had taken over the country with the CIA and the international community's help in 1965, deposing and then assassinating the democratically elected Patrice Lumumba in the process, sunk $10 million dollars in the event, money that would've been better spent on his country's well-being. Seko was still running the country when When We Were Kings was finally released, a few months from death, his country just a year away from the outbreak of the Second Congo War, which, although technically completed in 2003, continues today.

About two-thirds of the way through the film, George Plimpton asks King about finding ways to keep the "vast sums" of money coming into the country for the fight in the hands of those who need it most. But for all his talk of "community," King responds with sing-songy hyperbole and deflection. Nothing about his countenance suggests he was serious about this—in the last fight he promoted for Ali, he shortchanged the champion $1.2 million. Pan-Africanism is nice in theory, but clearly has its limits when black people prove just as craven as the whites who have long stolen from them.

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