Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “When We Were Kings” (1996)

I have wrestled with an alligator. I done tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail. That’s bad! Only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick! I’m so mean I make medicine sick!” – Muhammad Ali

Following the news of the death of Muhammad Ali a few days ago, I decided to watch Leon Gast’s documentary about the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” between Ali and George Foreman. This award-winning film also looks at the event’s accompanying music festival, featuring the likes of James Brown and B. B. King, as well as the politics of Zaire and the dictatorship of President Mobutu Sese Seko.

Well, I have to start by mentioning Muhammad Ali; in this film, we get to see his memorable charismatic personality, essentially dancing and jumping his way through the whole film, always announcing his imminent taking down of Foreman. This film definitely lets us see what a wonderful character Ali was and his charisma and charm is great to witness throughout.

In addition, a large part of When We Were Kings concerns the admiration that the people of Zaire had for Ali; they saw him as a genuine, caring man, in stark contrast to Foreman who arrives in the country with a German Shepherd, a dog the people recognized as a police dog. Through all of this, Ali talks of his important political views and this deepens our respect for him greatly.

As for the pivotal boxing match, the main highlights are shown as well as the atmosphere in Ali’s changing room beforehand. The film confidently sets the scene and builds up anticipation, showing an almost gladitorial arena, looked over by an intimidating portrait of President Mobutu (who didn’t actually attend, for fear of assassination and who was rumoured to have executed 100 prisoners before the event). The fight is definitely tense and exciting to watch and the film intersperses it with interview clips, letting us know the important things that are going on, informing us of the boxing techniques that are being used.

Though perhaps a bit few on interviewees (Norman Mailer is used a bit too generously), the interview clips are certainly interesting and are put together cleverly to create a coherent narrative. The musical segments are also successful in giving the film a certain rhythm and flair; the opening titles in particular are excellent wherein we see footage of Ali, followed by some exciting blues instrumentals. All of this gives the documentary a unique edge and keeps it interesting.

Expertly edited and put together, this is a confident, colourful documentary with an interesting, coherent narrative. And of course, Ali is wonderful and fascinating to watch throughout. Ali Bomaye!

★ ★ ★ ★

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