Movie Review By Casey McCabe
Someone recently asked me what films of the last couple years had both surprised and moved me. And I was surprised how quickly I answered "When We Were Kings". The 1996 documentary by Leon Gast is ostensibly about the 1974 heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. But how surprising could it be? I already knew how it turned out. Back in 1974 I bet Ron Peterson my whole weekís allowance of $5 that Ali would win, even though I suspected -- like everyone else -- that the fearsome young Foreman would destroy the over-the-hill Ali.
But this is no more the story of two men beating each other up than Citizen Kane is the story of a lost sled. Looking back on the event from a distance of more than 20 years, Gast recognized a seminal moment, and through a wealth of old clips and recent interviews he unfolds a true story of near mythic proportions.
In October of 1974 the world stage had moved to a stadium in Kinshasa, Zaire and the first heavyweight championship to be held in Africa. At stake was the largest gate in boxing history, a 10 million dollar purse to be shared by Ali and Foreman. The stakes, however, turn out to be much bigger for everybody. For an untested fight promoter named Don King who had pulled off boxing's biggest coup with smoke and mirrors. For Zaire's monomaniacal dictator Mobutu Sese Seko who used his country's meager reserves to supply the purse, hoping for some good PR to hide his many skeletons. And for the army of promoters and media flacks who saw the musical and sports extravaganza as nothing less than bridging the gulf between African-Americans and Africa. Throw in appearances by James Brown, George Plimpton, Spike Lee, Howard Cosell and Norman Mailer, and you have perhaps the mightiest collection of egos ever assembled on screen.
But most of all -- and the filmmakers make no attempt to hide it -- this is the story of Muhammad Ali. Charismatic and conflicted. A political athlete. Perhaps the most famous man on Earth. The documentary's masterstroke takes us into his moment of truth, literally the look in his eyes, when Ali digs down deep to find something no one thought was there. And yes, in the hands of this deft, fast moving documentary it still manages to be a revelation. And yet again when I rented the video to see if the larger than life figures translated to the small screen.
When We Were Kings is not exactly an undiscovered gem. It did, after all, win an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. But the millions of people who avoid documentaries on principal may want to know that this education happens to be riveting entertainment.
As Spike Lee laments late in the film, most young people today forget what happened last year, much less 25 years ago. And they risk losing a valuable perspective on the people and events that shaped their lives. Me? I haven't forgotten. Ron Peterson still owes me five dollars.
© 1999 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 05/19/99
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