When We Were Kings is a 1996 documentary about the “Rumble in the Jungle,” the famous bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire. Though the rumble happened in 1974, the footage remained shelved for many years before it finally was edited into this final form. The result is an documentary captures a key moment in time in these fighters’ histories.
Leon Gast’s documentary follows three threads. The primary and most interesting one are the speculation and preparation going into the fight and the fight itself. The other two threads are a little less interesting. A second one is the political situation in Zaire in the country’s motivations for hosting the fight. The last and least interesting is the music concert that also was staged around the same time.
One thing I really appreciated about this documentary was how it really showcased the Lightning Lip. The footage of Ali shows him so animated, often talking smack about Foreman and throughout and building himself up at the same time. It is such a stark contrast to how he is now.
Even though Ali talked himself up, much speculation surrounded the event and predicted George Foreman’s win. Interviews with Norman Mailer and George Plimpton give us some of the background into what people were thinking, namely that Ali was out of his league in this fight. Obviously, the outcome proved otherwise.
While I appreciated the music, the most exciting part of this documentary is the fight itself. When We Were Kings builds to that moment through press conferences and commentary about each fighter’s ability. Mailer and Plimpton share just how palpable the tension was in the stadium, and along with the commentator their observations offer a further layer of analysis of what’s happening in the ring. They show just how subtle and how sophisticated boxing can be, with the type of hook, jab, uppercut, and even patience that goes into a fight. No wonder Ali turned the sport into an art.
When We Were Kings won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1996. The film is not a straightforward sport competition documentary, but that’s the part of the documentary that is the most interesting.