Top 100 Films #54 – When We Were Kings (1996)


when-we-were-kings-muhammed-ali-muhammad-ali-2-rcm0x1920u#54. When We Were Kings (1996)
Directed by: Leon Gast
Written by: Leon Gast
Starring: Muhammad Ali, George Foreman

Muhammad Ali has long been one of my personal heroes – his never say die attitude combined with his brash, loud personality matches the personalities of most of my heroes.  When We Were Kings takes a look at Ali’s “Rumble in the Jungle” fight in Zaire with then heavyweight champion George Foreman.  The documentary captures Ali’s close-knit relationship with and deep respect for the people of Africa, and Foreman’s much more awkward interactions with the fans. The arguably past his prime Ali was the clear underdog going into the fight, but watching the film you would never see it phase him.  Instead he uses his confidence and swagger to psych out Foreman and his team, encouraging crowds to shout “Ali Bomaye” or “Ali kill him” and even approaching Foreman outside of public appearances just to play mind games.  When We Were Kings is a picture perfect example of how archival footage can be turned into a compelling storytelling exercise.  Leon Gast uses footage to show how dominant Foreman was going into the fight, and that Ali was seemingly in over his head.  The combination of the lead-up to the fight with footage of the soul music festival taking place concurrently, featuring world class artists like James Brown and B.B. King.  The combination of the two landmark events sets the tone and atmosphere of the film and makes this one incredibly memorable experience both for viewers and for those in Zaire lucky enough to witness them.  The beauty of When We Were King’s and Leon Gast’s structure of the film is that it isn’t just about the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight – it’s about an attitude towards African’s and African-American’s during a time of great strife, and about the 1970’s as a whole. When the fight finally does take place, the scene has been set and you’re ready for the events about to take place.  The ultimate underdog Muhammad Ali employs the world famous “Rope-a-Dope” technique, which causes his opponent to exhaust himself in time for a perfectly placed knockout blow, which Ali nails in the eighth round.  The moment is triumphant and incredibly emotional, reuniting Ali with the championship he was stripped of in 1967.  When We Were Kings is an emotional, intense, and atmospheric documentary the likes of which I’ve never seen before.  It perfectly captures the attitudes and mood of the 1970’s, and combines it with the most iconic fight of the era.  See When We Were Kings if you’re a fan of documentaries or boxing in general – it’s a magical experience.

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