When We Were Kings
Directed by Leon Gast
With Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Don King, Mobutu Sese Seko, James Brown, Miriam Makeba, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Spike Lee and B.B. King
Opens in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth on April 10, Brisbane April 24
Review by Norm Dixon
This thoroughly enjoyable documentary is much, much more than a film about the cruel sport of boxing. It is an entertaining, funny, inspiring and enthralling dissection of the drama and politics that surrounded the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" — the heavyweight championship bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, in 1974.
Distilled from 250 hours and 100,000 metres of brilliantly colourful footage filmed by director Leon Gast at the time, Kings offers a deep insight into what made this event so important to millions of African-Americans and Africans alike.
By the early 1970s, the optimism engendered by the civil rights movement was beginning to fade as African-Americans realised that the deep-seated racism of the US system had not fundamentally altered. More radical and assertive voices — political and cultural — were moving to the fore.
In Africa, the first wave of liberation struggles had won in the 1960s and a second wave — in Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique — was gathering momentum.
The "Rumble in the Jungle" was a cultural and political celebration of black pride throughout the African diaspora. The brash, confident, intelligent and good-looking Muhammad Ali personified this intercontinental mood of aggressive defiance and independence.
Eighteen-year-old Cassius Clay returned from the 1960 Rome Olympics to Louisville, Kentucky, with a gold medal, only to be refused service in a local cafe. He tossed the medal into the Ohio River in protest at this racism.
The young fighter's declaration, "I am the greatest", and his witty, boastful raps about his good looks, intelligence and boxing skills infuriated the white press and sports establishment and made him a hero in the black community.
The day after winning the heavyweight championship in 1964, Clay shed his "slave name" and joined the black nationalist Nation of Islam. Malcolm X became the fighter's spiritual adviser. The World Boxing Association threatened not to allow Ali to fight under his new name.
As the Vietnam War raged, the US government in 1966 served notice that Ali would be drafted. In response, he rapped: "On the war in Vietnam, I sing this song; I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong".
His stature grew as he successfully defended his title five times in 1966. In April 1967, Ali officially claimed conscientious objector status. The fighter was charged with draft evasion, and an all-white jury found him guilty. He was sentenced to five years' jail and a $10,000 fine. Despite remaining free pending appeal, Ali was stripped of his title. He announced his forced retirement on February 3, 1970. Later that year, the US Supreme Court overturned the conviction on a technicality rather than on civil rights grounds.
The clash with Foreman in Kinshasa was Ali's first shot at regaining the title. For African-Americans, an Ali victory would be seen as victory over the racist establishment that had tried to silence one of their spokespeople. For Africans, an Ali victory would symbolise the Third World's triumph against racism and imperialism.
Zairean actor Malik Bowens explains in the film: "We knew [Ali] for his political stance. We saw that America was at war in a Third World country and that one of the children of the US said, 'Why should I fight against them? They haven't done anything against me' ... That's when he gained the esteem of millions of Africans."
While the fearsome, introverted Foreman — and odds-on favourite — was more than Ali's match in the ring, he did not stand a chance against his opponent's astute reading of the political mood surrounding the fight. "I was a slave 400 years ago, and now I'm going home to fight among my brothers", Ali proclaimed on arrival. He was greeted with the chant that followed him throughout his stay in Africa: "Ali! Bomaye!" (Ali! Kill him!).
Foreman was unfairly seen as an Uncle Tom by African public opinion. Before he arrived in Zaire, many assumed Foreman was white. When he did arrive, he insulted Zaireans by bringing along his pet German shepherd, the same breed of dog used by Zaire's Belgian colonial rulers.
The bit players in this drama include the corrupt dictator Mobutu, who agreed to divert the $10 million prize money from the state budget (and probably his Swiss bank account) so as to bathe in Ali's reflected glory, and the amoral con artist and fight promoter Don King, who wangled the deal with Mobutu.
Writers Norman Mailer and George Plimpton give an insightful commentary on the story as it unfolds, and Spike Lee makes an appearance, probably because he helped pay for the film's completion. The film contains classic footage of performances by the godfather of funk, James Brown, blues legend B.B. King, South Africa's Miriam Makeba and a host of other great artists.
The establishment press has for decades ridiculed and patronised Ali as the braggart "Louisville Lip"; today, suffering from Parkinson's disease, he is portrayed as somebody to be pitied. When We Were Kings does what the capitalist press has refused to do for more than 30 years: honestly present the real Muhammad Ali. It entertainingly shows how historical and political circumstances intersected with Ali's brilliant mind, sharp wit, enormous ego and commitment to equality and peace to create a hero revered by many.