I decided to revisit this film about the "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire between champion George Foreman and challenger Muhammad Ali. It was as engaging as I remembered, although flawed enough to prevent it from being a classic.
I have told the story many times of our experience the night of that big fight. At the time of the match (October, 1974), we lived over Moe's Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, half a block from People's Park. Telegraph Ave. runs for more than 4 miles from Oakland to Berkeley, ending at the UC Berkeley campus ... we lived a few blocks from campus. Haste Street ran north of People's Park. Our apartment was on the Telegraph side, and we spent many an afternoon just taking in the street life from our window (if memory serves, we were on the second floor). The fight ended ... oh, around 9:00 at night our time, give or take. I hadn't found Berkeley to be a big boxing town, but I recall a few car horns being blown as the news of Ali's victory was revealed. We could hear some serious crowd noise, and took to our window to see what was up. To our right, we saw an impromptu parade of people heading towards campus, chanting "A-LI! A-LI!" While our view was blocked by buildings, we could also sense a different impromptu parade of people on Haste Street, heading towards Telegraph, also chanting "A-LI!" Neither group knew about the other, although we had an excellent view from our window. The Haste Street crowd reached Telegraph just as the Telegraph crowd arrived a block from Haste. Upon discovering each other, the chanting, doubled in number of participants and multiplied immensely by the ecstatic recognition of the other group, become wonderfully loud.
I tell this story to help illustrate the way Ali was always more than just a boxer. Among many things, he was a folk hero to many in Berkeley.
When We Were Kings does an excellent job of showing this aspect of Ali. The people of Africa loved him, and he was happy to play that up. He was one of the most famous people in the world, and especially in the U.S., his story was well-known. When We Were Kings is so enamored of Ali that the film borders on hagiography. And it's easy to understand why. While George Foreman eventually became a beloved figure, in 1974 he was a mostly-silent man who let his fists talk for him, while Ali was irrepressible from the first time he came to the public's attention. In short, Ali was the perfect charismatic figure to place at the center of a film. Foreman was not. Given the historical fact that Ali won the fight, and that he was such a great screen presence, it makes perfect sense that When We Were Kings centers on Ali.
There are attempts to place the story in a wider context, mostly provided by interviews conducted in the mid-90s. A good portion of the interviewees are white, and while they have bonafide credentials (Norman Mailer wrote a book about the fight, George Plimpton covered it at the time, Thomas Hauser has written several books on Ali), it feels odd to see these old white guys pontificating about the great hero of African-Americans. Spike Lee is also interviewed, and all of these men have interesting things to say. I just wish there was more Spike and less Norman.
When We Were Kings won the Oscar for Best Feature Documentary (to be honest, I've never seen any of the other nominees).