Directed by: Leon Gast | 84 minutes | documentary | Featuring: Muhammed Ali, George Foreman, Don King, James Brown, B.B. King, Mobutu Sese Seko, Spike Lee, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Thomas Hauser, Malick Bowens, Lloyd Price, Wilton Felder, Wayne Henderson, Stix Hooper, Joe Sample, Miriam Makeba
Director Spike Lee, maker of “25th Hour” and “Do The Right Thing,” among others, comes into the picture somewhere halfway through the film and makes a seemingly clichéd remark about the fact that today’s youth know nothing about history. They have no idea of the great importance (to the black community) or the influence of Muhammed Ali. Whining? Not at all. At least not this time. Indeed, “When We Were Kings” is not only a brilliant tribute to one of the greatest figures of the twentieth century, but also a superior accountability for Spike Lees claim. To do so, the film switches from cleverly edited historical footage to the memories and impressions of people like Spike Lee and the writer Norman Mailer, and back again. The result is a powerful and complex picture of how Muhammed Ali held his own in the media circus surrounding the fight in Zaire by performing one dazzling sketch after another. Boasting was more of a cunning stylistic tool than an expression of megalomania, and probably also a mantra against inglorious defeat. Even when the fight had already started. According to many, and probably also himself, Ali had no chance against George Foreman, but nevertheless managed to triumph, perhaps also with luckier than wisdom. And not just in the ring. Also beyond. What keeps you on the edge of your seat is not so much the outcome that is known, but Ali’s struggle not to give in to the loss of confidence in your own abilities. Despite or perhaps also because of the fact that he was already given up by everyone.
Pride is a dirty word to some. For other people it is simply the need for self-determination. And that is also what emerges in his refusal to serve in Vietnam. I ain’t got no quarrel with them. Ain’t no Vietcong ever called me nigger .. For that refusal, he was filleted by the American press and embraced by the people of Zaire at the time. The Zaireans saw it as a sign of solidarity with the less fortunate. One of them also explains in the film why Muhammed Ali was so terribly more popular at the time than the also black George Foreman: Yes, Ali was whiter than George. He could have been even whiter, and it still wouldn’t matter. He was one of us. Human .. When you see Muhammed Ali talking and thinking and moving, you can really only agree. You could almost say that his ego is so big because his heart is. Muhammed Ali on the silver screen is one piece of charisma, humor and mockery. Add to that his generosity and political consciousness, and you have an unbeatable combination. Norman Mailer also tells a telling anecdote about the moment in the dressing room just before the big fight. The atmosphere was depressed and everyone feared what was to come. Ali started jumping around like a clown and blurting out loud: I’m gonna dance. I’m gonna dance. I’m gonna dance. He’s gonna be so bewildered !!.
With a clown you never know whether he is kidding you. And whether he is right. Or that gets.