Thirty-Two year-old Muhammad Ali takes on what was at that time, one of the most powerful boxers in the history of the sport, in one last shot at greatness. Ali employs his "rope-a-dope" ... See full summary »
Documentary that chronicles how Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) was plagued by extraordinary script, shooting, budget, and casting problems--nearly destroying the life and career of the celebrated director.
It's 1974, Muhammad Ali is 32 and thought by many to be past his prime. George Foreman is ten years younger and the Heavyweight champion of the world. Promoter Don King wants to make a name for himself and offers both fighters five million dollars apiece to fight one another, and when they accept, King has only to come up with the money. He finds a backer in Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator of Zaire and the "Rumble in the Jungle" is set. A musical festival, featuring the America's top black performers, like James Brown and B.B. King, is also planned.Written by
Gary Dickerson <firstname.lastname@example.org>
While watching "When We Were Kings", I was distracted by many "what if" questions: "what if Foreman had won that match in Zaire?" "What if Ali had lost?" "What if it was a flop?" etc. Cynically, I assumed that had Ali lost, the documentary wouldn't have been made, but then I remembered that it waited 22 years to be made, and receive the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1997. In other words, it wasn't supposed to 'make a film'; it was a legend from the very start.
And "Rumble in the Jungle" is the nostalgic celebration of the most legendary episode of Boxing History, through a recollection of images and stories from those who witnessed the event. It's a treasure in terms of archive footage, musical sequences, and extraordinary shots of Ali haranguing his African fans and shining everyone with his unique charisma or Don King discussing the black condition with James Brown. The match is almost secondary while the film is more of a magnificent tribute to the enormous contribution of African American people in sport and entertainment. Some would think that the genius of people is better measured on fields such as science, medicine, physics, literature or politics, but in these times, sport and music was the most likely medium where African American people could express their voice.
And sport is probably the noblest expression of Humanity's true spirit: self-accomplishment, victory and respect. While science and literature cruelly depend on the level of education one has received, sport is universal; it's no-money learning: anyone can develop physical abilities with his own will. In a world full of segregation, sport offers the less segregationist environment. While intelligence can be used to disguise ignorance, strength cannot disguise weakness, the strongest is the strongest. Boxing is probably the most straight-forward incarnation of the true essence of sport, and on that discipline, Muhammad Ali was the greatest, a sort of semi-God like figure who had to prove his physical strength, before it transcended the limits of the ring, even at the risk of becoming an unpopular figure, an outcast but sometimes, it's this very status that paves the way to the legend.
One has to remember how truly unpopular Ali became when he refused to fight in Vietnam. As recalls Spike Lee, interviewed in the documentary, it's not just the refusal but the way it was stated: "No Vietcong ever called me a N-word". Ali shouted what every member of his community was secretly thinking, he had the guts to refuse to be a government's puppet, he lost his Heavyweight Champion title and couldn't fight for several years, but what it cost him in sports, elevated him above all the other athletes: more than a spokesperson, he became a living icon, a myth and a model. Basically, his refusal taught people one thing: that one can't ask for respect if he doesn't respect himself. And the man who 'shook up the world' by defeating Sonny Liston had too much self-esteem to fight against people he's got nothing against just because he's told to do so. Respect starts with self-respect and even school can't teach you to respect yourself.
This is why the documentary might be guilty of a certain bias toward Ali, but it doesn't denigrate Foreman either. He is the 'quiet yet invulnerable' force, a Fighting Machine that knocked out and dethroned Joe Frazier after a technical knock-out, but his lack of flamboyance and eccentricity allowed Ali to conquer the hearts of all the Zairian people. Basically, "Rumble in the Jungle" could have been subtitled the "Ali show". The film isn't pro-Ali or anti-Foreman, it even manages to draw a sort of retrospectively sympathetic portrait of 'Big George' who just couldn't outsize Ali, popularity-wise. An unfortunate irony is that even as a darker person, Foreman incarnated the 'White man' for the people, by arriving at the airport with a blonde shepherd, symbol of the previous Belgian colon. Misunderstood, Foreman also misunderstood the public, and the whole fight's symbolism, he showed as an African American man, while Ali was exalting the pride of the difference, this pride that started when he refused to assign.
And this is exactly this pride of the difference that the film conveys through Ali's exuberant personality, even the title works like a slogan reminding that there was a time where Africa was the mother of humanity, when there was a pride to be Black, and people like Ali revived that pride. The film powerfully encapsulates the spirit within the black people in America or Africa, this 'Booma ye!' spirit ,where it was not about wanting to be 'assimilated', but to be 'respected'. Difference, not assimilation and never had the Black pride been as authentic, as sincere, as expressed by Muhammad Ali, an equal of Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X and ironically to Patrice Lumumba who was ordered to be killed by the very President of Zaire, Mobutu himself. "When We Were Kings" provides an important slice of African life under dictatorship, proving that the people still had inner demons to exorcise, undermining the path to liberty.
Nothing positive can be dictated by terror and beyond the whole show, orchestrated by Don King, Ali and Foreman were not there to express an antagonism, but to play a game, it was a performance. And the film, although trying sometimes to convey a false sense of suspense by depicting Ali as a challenger who had almost no chance to win -a theory contradicted by most boxing experts- the legend preceded the match. How about the victory then? Well, I guess my "what if" questions were unthinkable in Ali's mind. It's as if, as a Muslim, he believed that some things were like written by God (or Allah) himself wanted to make reality even more appealing as fiction.
Indeed, while "When We Were Kings" is a documentary and a damn good one, I felt it as emotionally gripping as a fiction.
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