Documentary Classics: ‘When We Were Kings’

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Every Wednesday join us for a review of a classic documentary (or nonfiction work of some kind) and take part in a discussion of the film or series in the comments section below. These reviews may include spoilers for those who haven’t seen the docs, so every week we’ll give you advance notice about what the next title is so that you can watch it ahead of time.

It took more than 20 years for When We Were Kings to be made. But what the film is and what it was initially supposed to be are such different things that that statement isn’t entirely true. Director Leon Gast went to Africa in the fall of 1974 to document the three-day Zaire 74 concert (aka “the black Woodstock”), along with the Muhammad Ali and George Foreman boxing match known as “The Rumble in the Jungle,” with the intention of delivering a film focused on the former part of the festivities. In an interview with Vibe magazine in March 1997 (the month in which When We Were Kings would win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature), Gast admitted that had it been released as planned in 1976 it “would’ve been a music film with Ali and Foreman as secondary characters.”

By the time Gast settled a legal battle for the footage, struggled to find money to finish it and finally had a premiere at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, the documentary still featured Foremen as a secondary character, however the fight was now the main event. And Ali was the main concentration. Whether he’s the main character is another story. It’s certainly about him, but I might argue that Norman Mailer and George Plimpton are the stars of When We Were Kings as much as Ali is. The two writers are among the five talking heads who were interviewed for the film in the ’90s (Spike Lee is another), and at one point they provide a rat-a-tat-tat telling and analysis of the bout’s climax that is even more captivating than the boxer’s poetic showboating that makes up much of the earlier-shot material. Meanwhile, the concert acts including James Brown, B.B. King and The Spinners are almost relegated to tertiary status.

It does feel like a concert film, though. Specifically it reminds me of Gimme Shelter with all its lead-up behind-the-scenes coverage building to the powerful conclusion of the footage of a stabbing in the crowd at Altamont. The equivalent here is not as shocking, but the way Gast replays and slows the shots of Foreman going down in the eighth round while Mailer and Plimpton discuss the details is reminiscent of the Maysles brothers going over their shot of the murder accompanied by the members of the Rolling Stones. Interestingly enough, Albert Maysles was on the crew in Zaire and is credited as one of the cinematographers on When We Were Kings, although he claims none of his footage is actually in the final film (see the video below).

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I was surprised with When We Were Kings for two reasons. First, I found it strange yet favorable that none of the major players are interviewed in order to share their own retrospective thoughts. No Foreman, with his much different personality at the time potentially making up for — or at least contrasting with — the unassertive, inaccessible and mean-looking figure we see him as in ’74. No Ali or King (Don) or King (B.B.) or Brown or concert promoter Stewart Levine. It’s not that Gast wanted to avoid featuring people who were there at the time, of course, as Mailer and Plimpton and African artist Malick Bowens are all interviewees who did attend. It is worth noting that those others not brought back are represented in the ’74 footage, while the three interviewees mentioned aren’t really present in that older material. So they do have a level of separation that works. It’s also interesting to know that the interviews only came into the picture when filmmaker Taylor Hackford (Ray) joined on as a producer very late in the game and suggested the idea.

Second, I was taken aback by how immediately and thoroughly the doc is about and on the side of Ali — from the very get go, alongside one of the most exciting, jazz-filled doc openings ever, I might add. And then consistently through the rest of the film, which as edited by Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte, appropriately seems to dance, like the champ himself, fast and nimble and sort of floating along like the butterfly of his most famous quote. Sure, his presence is bigger due to his hamming and boasting for the press and the camera and the way he collaborated with Gast on shots and early morning set ups, tipping him off to his runs, etc. And Foreman was less cooperative, less outspoken, not as interested in talking with the press, not all that friendly a guy back then in general, and so he wasn’t as attractive to the camera, even if he’d been more involved. There’s also an angle to the story with treating Foreman as the bad guy, a boxer less known to the people in Africa, who offended them with his pet German Shepherd (a colonialist “police dog” to those in Zaire), who had a title believed to be rightfully belonging to the hero Ali.

The film also finishes with a celebration of Ali, a montage of his boxing career up through the Rumble in the Jungle, including the trials he’d faced after coming out as a conscientious objector of the Vietnam War. Part of the reason for the change in focus may be that Ali was, in the early ’90s, a more popular icon with a renewed legacy — yet not famous enough according to Lee’s comment about young African-Americans not knowing about him. Ali had a relationship with Malcolm X, who’d also recently come back into vogue due to Lee’s biopic, and Ali’s idea in 1974 was that these greatest of black musicians and athletes were returning to their African roots, which was another fashionable interest for many black people around the time the film was being finished. Of course, the best logic is that it simply made for a great narrative. When We Were Kings is the boxer’s triumphant comeback story, in which he regains the world heavyweight champion title he’d lost a few years earlier to Joe Frazier. The film might have been something totally different had Foreman been the winner.

There is definitely some haziness regarding that message of Ali’s, which had been held over the event. Were Zaire 74 and the Rumble in the Jungle really about the African people and the African-American heritage or were they primarily about the money and the reputations of the powers at play? We hear about this being a huge stepping stone in Don King’s career as a famous promoter and how he got the $5m each for the boxers from President Mobuto, who spent it to put Zaire culturally on the map over putting it towards the welfare of his own people. At one point in film while discussing the fight, Plimpton says that for a second it looked like Ali wasn’t trying hard enough, as though it were a fix, another reminder of this theme of possible background corruption in the air. It’s ironic given the earlier rhyme from Ali where he compares his forthcoming win to Nixon’s resignation, but then these events being in the wake of Watergate is also obviously why such feelings were abound.

The film itself was originally a part of the whole shebang, part of Don King’s packaged promotion of himself and the event he made happen. He hired Gast to do the concert film. He calmed down the members of the crew who protested the idea of a white man directing a film about black boxers in Africa. Yet he was also apparently to blame for the battle over the footage since it was an ordeal involving the Liberian government, through which he financed the production, and then he was Gast’s subsequent adversary for the material and control of the film. Again, we could have wound up with a different documentary had someone else won a fight. And isn’t it odd that the eventual title would have the word “kings” in there, especially when there are two men named King on screen?

Eventually we did end up with a few other — well, more — documentaries from out of the events recorded that September and October in 1974. First there was the relatively short concert program B.B. King: Live in Africa (IMDb credits the release as 1974, but the most I can find is a VHS release of 1997), and then five years ago Gast at last produced a film focused on the Zaire 74 festival titled Soul Power, turning directorial duties over to Kusama-Hinte. It features Ali and Foreman as secondary characters. And maybe some actual footage shot by Maysles. Gast is also now the producer of the documentary The Trials of Muhammad Ali, which focuses on the history of the boxer’s fight with the U.S. government over his Vietnam draft dispute.

You can read my review of The Trials of Muhammad Ali here.

Read the Vibe magazine article here.

Read more about the production history of When We Were Kings in a Washington Post story here.

Watch When We Were Kings on DVD if you haven’t already.

For next week’s Documentary Classic review, I’ll be taking on the 1987 short The Way Things Go, which is available on DVD.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.