Sunday, April 11, 2021

When We Were Kings

Another of the movies that I had the chance to record during one of the free preview weekends was the documentary When We Were Kings. It's going to be on again tomorrow at 11:00 AM on SHOxBET, as well as a couple more times during the week, so I watched it to do a review on here.

Boxer Muhammad Ali was one of the most famous sporting figures of the second half of the 20th century. Born Cassius Clay, he won an Olympic gold medal, beat Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight championship, went to prison for refusing to fight in Vietnam after losing his title, and came back ultimately to win the title. One of those title fights was a 1974 bout in Kinshasa, Zaïre (formerly the Belgian Congo and today known as the D.R. Congo or Congo, Kinshasa to distinguish it from the other Congo), and that bout is the basis for the documentary.

The fight itself isn't quite the focus; instead it's more about two other things. One is the preparation for the fight, which takes up probably two-thirds of the film; the other is the cultural milieu in which the fight was announced. Ali had become a cultural icon as the charismatic but non-militant Black Muslim who could pretty much charm everybody, and used those gifts to display a social conscience. So going back to the spiritual homeland was a big deal.

Indeed, the preparations surrounding the fight were not just to have a fight, but to have a concert celebrating black music with some of the biggest names in both America (James Brown and the Spinners) and Africa (Miriam Makeba). Ultimately, the concert and the fight were both held, but six weeks apart because Foreman suffered a cut over his eye in training.

Frankly, the whole part of the movie looking at the preparations for the fight were to me the most interesting, being a fascinating look at the logistical difficulties in pulling off an event like this. Promoter Don King had gotten contracts from both Ali and Foreman to fight each other if King could get $10 million in backing so that each boxer could get $5 million. The biggest reason the fight was held in Kinshasa is that Zaïre's then-dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, put up the money as part of a PR blitz to get good publicity for his country. Ali and Foreman, from the archival footage we see, concern themselves more with boxing than with Zaïrean politics, although Ali always looked at the broader picture of the advancement of black people. Contrast that with today, where there's increasing pressure to do sport only with right-thinking political polities and blacklist the rest.

Interspersed among the archival clips of the boxers' preparation are interviews with three figures: writers George Plimpton and Norman Mailer, and movie director Spike Lee. The writers talk more about the actual fight itself while Lee is there to give insights into the broader cultural context. Also intersperesed are clips from the musicians who performed at the concert. Finally, we get to the fight itself, although I'd tend to mention this part less mostly because I'm not the biggest fan of boxing. For those who are fans, there's a good bit of strategic commentary from Plimpton and Mailer. I don't know how accurate it is, not being a fan of the sport.

When We Were Kings won the Oscar for Best Documentary and received overwhelmingly glowing reviews, but I couldn't help but see a few weaknesses. Surprisingly, the music was one. Not that it's bad; in fact, a documentary about trying to put together this concert would be interesting depending on how much archival footage of the principals there is. But in this movie, it feels like it's padding the main story; the movie is already short enough as it is running about 80 minutes before the credits roll.

There's also the lack of present-day interviews. Ali had already been diagnosed with his Parkinsons-like disease, I think, so I don't believe he would have been able to do interviews. But Don King and Foreman certainly were. Indeed, as either Mailer or Plimpton noted, Foreman completely remade his image from what he had in 1974 and became one of the most affable figures in boxing. His perspective on the fight would have been fascinating; instead, the movie is often presented as though Foreman is an afterthought and it should be called When Ali Was King.

Still, there's a whole lot that's interesting in When We Were Kings, and it's more than worth a watch.

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