Saturday, March 22, 2008

When We Were Kings

It's NCAA tournament time so films will take a back seat to basketball for the next two weeks. Here's one I got in before all the games started.

When We Were Kings (Leon Gast, 1996) [8]

Gast's documentary on the Ali-Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle" took twenty years to find an official release and in that time frame, it became an even more important document of a certain event and time. As the years and Parkinsons erased the Ali everybody knew in the 60s and 70s, this film captures the man at his absolute zenith, the greatest achievement of his career. Most boxing people gave him no chance against Foreman, who has previously demolished Joe Frazier (cue Howard Cosell's "down goes Frazier!" impersonations). Gast's film focuses heavily on Ali before the fight, showing the man as his usual charismatic self in interviews but in more private footage revealing a man much more somber about the reality of the situation. It's these moments with the private Ali that take the film above simply documenting a sporting event. The fight itself takes up very little of the film actually, as greater sociological and political ideas are brought up. George Plimpton and Norman Mailer give well-informed interviews on not just the fight but the odd circumstances of the fight itself, which promoted by Don King, took place in Zaire because the dictator of that nation, Mobutu Seko, put up the cash for the fight to raise the profile of his nation. That the fight took place in a stadium where underneath, thousands of dissidents of the Mobutu regime were being held, tortured, and killed provides a strange dichotomy. By the fight being in Africa, it brings up the ideas of black pride and nationalism that were sweeping across the world by the mid 70s. The most interesting facet of the documentary is the way Ali is treated by the Africans as a conquering hero. It's hard to remember now with Ali being so beloved but his association with the Nation of Islam and his refusal to serve in Vietnam had made him an enemy of much of mainstream America during the time frame. Gast's film goes beyond capturing a fight and showing revealing Ali to be one of the most important figures of the 20th century in any field, mostly because of his role model status not just to Black America but to those all over the world. That he was able to defeat Foreman makes him a much more celebrated figure and the reason this film doesn't center on George Foreman.

No comments: