Review: Criterion's WHEN WE WERE KINGS Kills it on Blu-ray

Celebrated boxing documentary stars Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle”.

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
Review: Criterion's WHEN WE WERE KINGS Kills it on Blu-ray

When We Were Kings is an undeniably lean and mean piece of work; hard-hitting but not an attack, genuine while showcasing a grand hullabaloo. Boxing! Music! Ali! Foreman! Black power! Cinema power!

In its tight eighty-eight-minute runtime, we casually witness the soft collision of politics and commerce in the form of an unprecedented multi-pronged event brought to an underdeveloped country that’s never played host to any such thing. Suddenly, the eyes of the world would be on the humble and undeveloped African country of Zaire, via the top, top, top-draw promise of a heavyweight boxing match pitting former champ and infectious raconteur Ali against reigning champion and potential death machine, George Foreman. It would be called “The Rumble in the Jungle”. Accompanying the fight would be the most glorified of sideshows, a three-day music festival, Zaire 74, starring top black talent of the day, James Brown, B.B. King, The Spinners, and African native Miriam Makeba. It is a thing to behold.

Only recently entering the increasingly treacherous ring of high definition physical media, Criterion’s release of filmmaker Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings delivers not one but two feature-length documentaries.  It’s a well-justified decision, as the popular Oscar-winning Kings, and the “bonus doc”, 2008’s Soul Power, are cemented as two sides of the same coin: Side “fight” and side “music”; sourced from the same wealth of expertly-shot source footage, as it were. (Among the original photographers: documentary legend Albert Maysles).

In literal reality, of course, it’s all authored on one side of said Blu-ray. Like the main event itself, it’s a presentation of intentional tension and intriguing dichotomies. One spectacle versus another. Musical art versus violent sport. Dance on stage versus dance in the ring. It showcases the famed ring of the near-mythical Rumble in the Jungle- the true ring of power, both momentarily and decades on. It is the one ring that continues to rule them all. 

Like most such moments in westernized life, the outcome will be sports trouncing the arts. In the unwashed grandstands of public interests, this is ever the way. In the case of this Blu-ray release, however, it is merely justice. Leon Gast’s meticulously assembled masterpiece When We Were Kings is clearly a standout on every level, earning its top billing of treasured superstar prize fighter Muhammad Ali. Director Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte’s Soul Power, on the other hand, must settle for the proverbial “George Foreman” slot: perfectly likable, hard-hitting at times, but per destiny itself, not the winner. It is fortunate to be a part of a Criterion release, even if it doesn’t warrant a spine number of its very own.  

Criterion, in its infinite collective wisdom, knows this. As far as audience absorption of the wildly grand scope of the unlikely let’s-put-on-a-show! circus vibe underneath the conjoined semi-doomed music festival and triumphant flashpoint of Don King’s legendary Rumble in the Jungle, both films are of a piece. They are a sexy, sweaty pair that won’t stop aggressively gyrating around one another. Now, thanks to Criterion, they are finally married.

In the day, Gast and his fish-out-of-water camera crew wound up with 400 hours of film(!), forty of it being Muhammad Ali.  There pure gold, as Ali, outspoken and always speaking, does his thing for the cameras as well as whomever is the room. “I'm young, I'm handsome, I'm fast, I'm pretty and can't possibly be beat!”, is just one of his trademark boast that the former heavyweight champion riffs as he holds continuous court with the ever-present horde of press. They, like us, find Ali ever irresistible.  The man demonstrates a buzzing mind, ever free-associating, but also operating like clockwork.  When he storms in on his way to Zaire, he raps, ““If you think the world was aghast when Nixon resigned, just wait until I kick Foreman’s behind!”  King promised both boxers $4 million. Ali earns his cut before he ever enters the ring.

When We Were Kings_3.jpgAs brilliantly made as When We Were Kings is, it likely wouldn’t fly today as a black power celebration.  The appropriation of Africa as depicted in the footage and talked around in the then-contemporary interviews, by 2019 standards, simply rings too altogether hollow, more of an objectified exoticism than anything else. Even in 1996, when Kings was vacuuming up mass acclaim both commercially and critically, Gast opts to superimpose bewitching footage of African performer Miriam Makeba over clips of Foreman succumbing to Ali, his fall being described as the rumored work of dark magic, a supposed succubus. This moment, rightly unpacked in the included printed essay by critic Kelefa Sanneh, is as guilty as any westerner oblivious in the ways of African dance and performance, casting Makeba as some sort of surrogate demoness. Back then, it slid by.  Today, it’s a cinematic bruise to the eye of an otherwise reigning champ.

In 1974, when it was all going down, such things were all the crasser. Don King himself, that wild-haired fight promoter and notorious opportunist, is clearly tapping into a then-emergent pro-African undercurrent in western consciousness, as he moved heaven and earth and his efforts to stage this epic match in Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. With his grandiose pomposity, captured thoroughly and without judgment by Gast, King succeeds in convincing not just Foreman and Ali to travel 6000 miles for this dreamed-up event, but scores of famous musicians and their handlers and entourages, as well as the full crew necessary to stage a concurrent three day music festival, one of the several integral moving parts in the delicate financing scheme enabling this vision. 

For King, it’s all about building his name. For Ali, there’s the authentic factor of black pride, something he truly seems passionate about well beyond his persistent smack-talk lecturing. As for the then-sullen and considerably less-accessible George Foreman, who was very much still in his simmering brute phase, years before his born-again awakening and personal recasting as an affable seller of stovetop grills, he must defend his heavyweight title. For Zaire, who’s iron-fisted president Mobutu Sese Seko has promised to pony up the lion’s share of the needed resources in exchange for getting his country “on the map“, hosting a massive global sporting event such as this does indeed lure in the world.  

Yet, for all the talk of Zaire as “the birth place of the black man”, and Africa as “the cradle of all human life”, etc., etc., the Caucasian Leon Gast leans entirely on 1996 interviews conducted by the Caucasian Taylor Hackford featuring the film’s central contextualizations, courtesy of old-school Caucasian intellectuals George Plimpton and Norman Mailer. Mailer and Plympton, for all their genuine articulate insights and well-recalled firsthand observations, are as white as it gets.  Also interviewed, for the presumed “black perspective”, are Spike Lee and African artist Malik Bowens, though both get considerably less screen time.  This, it is quite likely, is just way things worked out in terms of necessary and usable information being provided.  But as it said these days, the optics on this aspect is not good.  Nevertheless, it too is a part of the racially historic texture that When We Were Kings- so much more than a mere boxing documentary- brings to the table.

No endorsement of When We Were Kings should be read as a blanket endorsement nor necessarily any endorsement of boxing as a sport nor the shaky cultural acrobatics that enabled the event(s) depicted.  What we’ve got, and what has always been celebrated about Gast’s film, is a precisely and lovingly presented (if at times flawed) window into a crazily forged convergence of America taking to Zaire, Africa flipping the existing script of negative perception in terms of black pride (Spike Lee explains that before the early 1970s, there was a time when black people in the modern world would fight back if referred to “African” - a long way from Marvel’s Black Panther), and a glance at a pre-Roots world at the gate of reconsideration of the supposedly “jungle continent”, its culture, history, and overlooked importance. 

Gast’s film captures what is, at the end of the day, the Rumble in the Jungle as put forth as a black power event; a “spiritual commitment”.  As Ali famously served Foreman, it’s a subtle right-hand lead to the face of colonialism and racial relations in the latter part of the twentieth century, and beyond.  Criterion, bomaye.

When We Were Kings

  • Leon Gast
  • Muhammad Ali
  • George Foreman
  • Don King
  • James Brown
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boxingCriterion Blu-rayDocumentaryMuhammad AliLeon GastGeorge ForemanDon KingJames BrownSport

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