How When We Were Kings enshrined Muhammad Ali’s legacy

Leon Gast’s award-winning 1996 film portrays the heavyweight champ as an artist, philosopher and poet.


Justine Smith


An unearthly tension runs through When We Were Kings. Paid five million dollars each, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman are flown to Zaire (now The Democratic Republic of the Congo) to fight for the heavyweight title of the world. Only the brutal dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was willing to put up the money for the fight and Don King, the infamous fight promoter, was happy to do business. State violence hangs around the edges of the frame and the impending monsoon’s fill the air with heavy electricity. More than just a fight movie, this is a work of philosophy and poetry and a document of Muhammad Ali as an artist.

The aesthetic tightrope that the documentary balances on, invokes the romance of the ring and the dangerous obsession that goes with it. Ali and Foreman are portrayed as two men driven to battle and long before they enter the ring, they exchange words on the open stage. Corruption bleeds into the lead-up, as the conditions of a fight within is rife with paranoia and uncertainty. I’ve never seen Don King look so young but he is unmistakable with his up-brushed hair and open smile. He shakes hands and introduces himself to everyone, treating each man like royalty. He quotes Shakespeare to the press, who ask him to slow down and repeat every word so they can put it into print. Norman Mailer, one of the film’s talking heads, explains that Don King rarely had the best interest of fighters at heart but even knowing that, he never failed to charm you.

The physical toll of the fight similarly weighs on the film. Billed as a fight that pit wisdom against youth, Muhammad Ali’s face was already beginning to reflect the brutality of his lifestyle. He had already been in the business for about 10 years and had been knocked down more than a few times. What happens to a life after boxing seems to be a central tenet of the film, as the physical and psychological toll of the game keeps drawing you back in. Ten years after this fight, just three years into his retirement, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s that doctors believed was caused by his fighting. He was 42 years old.

From the earliest days of cinema, going all the way back to 1894 and Edison’s first boxing recording, the Leonard-Cushing fight (a snippet of which exists on YouTube), the medium seemed perfectly suited for cinema. Over a hundred years later, that small piece of film flickers at a speed slightly slower than reality, a haunting expression of bodies in motion. Extending that early kinetic obsession to fiction in movies like The Champ and The Set-Up, cinema could not be better suited to fighting which was beautiful to watch and served as a crucial metaphor for man’s struggles for respect, love, and peace. Even the best of these films though (I’d argue from the first fifty years of cinema, it would be Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul from 1947) could not have predicted the complicated poetry of Muhammad Ali.

The strength of When We Were Kings is the strength of Ali’s screen presence. While George Foreman is nothing to laugh at, this movie belongs to “The Greatest.” In Zaire, Ali was considered something of an icon and the people of the country all wanted him to win. They admired the way he stood up to the American military when he refused to be drafted in Vietnam, which cost him years of his fighting when it led him to be stripped of his title.

Decades later his words still burn. “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” he said. “And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

The talking heads in When We Were Kings are witnesses rather than participants; artists, and journalists like Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, and Spike Lee. They discuss the events with colour and imagination, imbuing meaning into Ali’s silent ramblings to himself between rounds and the frenzy of his pre-fight Dance. They admire Ali not just as a fighter but as a poet, a man who could elevate a pre-fight taunt to legend (“I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick”). The complicated richness of the film’s context, from the witch-doctor fetishist warning of the shaking hands to the blood-soaked stadium, is brought to life through their testimonies.

Words and myth though, become subservient to the crackling saturated image. The colour of Zaire and the movements of Ali are masterful. He shadow boxes on an open road, the thick humidity of the air obscuring a pink, distant sun, as he chants with children, “Ali Bomaye!” (Ali, Kim Him!). The film’s editing style, evokes a kind of new age Soviet Montage, as meaning and ideas are shaped by an irreversible compounding of images and ideas. At the same time as the fight an equally troubled concert, Zaire 74, was being staged and the music of James Brown, BB King and Miriam Makeba serves as the film’s rhythmic backdrop.

Were Ali still alive today, he would be turning 76. More than just one of the greatest athletes of all time, he was one of the great philosophers of the modern world. When We Were Kings encapsulates the poetry and the tragedy of Ali’s body and ideology. Painting him as a flawed man within a sport rife with violence and corruption, he represents humanity at large, chasing fire until it burns out. Few documentaries capture the sense of the moment as beautifully as When We Were Kings, that remains vital over twenty years after its release.

Published 17 Jan 2018

Tags: Muhammad Ali

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