When We Were Kings

on October 25, 1996 by Dale Winogura
   A positive, joyous affirmation of the power to overcome obstacles, "When We Were Kings" is a revealing and balanced documentary portrait of a great fighter and a time in world history when African-Americans began to develop a public sense of identity and individuality. The struggles that Muhammad Ali went through in 1974 to win back his heavyweight championship title in a classic bout against George Foreman in Zaire is chronicled with intense love and devotion by director Leon Gast, without resort to preaching or patronizing.
   Gast filmed most of this footage more than 20 years ago (he had 450 hours in the can), but he's spent the intervening time paying off debts and trying to raise completion money. When Taylor Hackford ("Bound by Honor") came into the project in 1995, he shot additional interviews with Norman Mailer and George Plimpton and helped give the final film its overall shape. In fact, Hackford's hand can be clearly seen in the punchy, rhythmic editing style, which he earlier displayed in another exceptional black-culture documentary, "Hail Hail! Rock 'n' Roll."
   Smoothly integrating concert footage of Miriam Makeba, B.B. King and James Brown with sociopolitical views of Africa in the early 1970s, the film gives Ali's life at the time more perspective by placing him in context with the forces that influenced him. Although there's plenty of screen time detailing Ali's trademark humor, charming egomania and boxing skills, the filmmakers wisely let the specter of racism insinuate itself into the structure so that the boxer's victory is made all the sweeter. Only by squarely confronting social evil can the true test of humanity be proven, the film asserts.
   Ali's opponent is not given short shrift, but "When We Were Kings" could have been even richer had Foreman been characterized as more than just an adversary. Overall, however, this is a most rewarding picture, full of delightful anecdotes and even touches of suspense. Starring Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Don King and James Brown. Directed by Leon Gast. Produced by David Sonenberg, Leon Gast and Taylor Hackford. A Gramercy release. Rated PG for images of violence, brief nudity and some language. Documentary. Running time: 88 min.
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