When Ali Was King

Twenty-two years in the making, director Leon Gast's Academy Award-nominated "When We Were Kings" might not have been the movie it is today had it not been for a slip by heavyweight boxer George Foreman. The result of that mis-step more than 20 years ago resulted in this vivid screen portrait of Muhammed Ali, who was Foreman's opponent in the legendary 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire. Promoter Don King put together the title bout between then-heavyweight champ Foreman and Ali. After getting the two to agree to the fight, King talked Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko into putting up 10 million dollars in prize money, to be split 50-50 between the boxers. For Mobutu, it was the perfect deal, a chance to buy some cheap publicity for himself, his country, and Africa.The fight was originally supposed to be the climax of a three-day music festival featuring top African and American musicians, including James Brown, B.B. King, the Spinners, and Miriam Makeba. Gast was hired to document the entire event and put together a film which would focus largely on the music, a sort of black Woodstock.Five days before the bout, however, disaster struck when Foreman slipped while sparring and took an elbow above his right eye, opening a gash that forced promoters to put the fight on hold. Unwilling to lose his money or suffer the damage to his prestige, Mobutu made it clear to both fighters' entourages that they would not be allowed to leave the country until after the fight. But because the performers had contractual obligations elsewhere following the concert, the promoters were forced to go ahead with the music and put off the fight. Gast had planned to focus on the concert but, because the fight was an inextricable part of the event, and he and his crew were obliged to remain in Zaire too. Stuck there for six weeks, the filmmakers improvised. Following Ali as he travelled about the country, they were able to document the joyful reception he got virtually everywhere he went.Ali was in rare form, sparring with the cameras, boasting about his speed, and playing with the adoring children who surrounded him, all the while unreeling his patented verse. "I knocked out a stone," he declares. "I pulverized a brick! I'm so mean I make medicine sick!"Foreman, by contrast was distinctly uncomfortable in Africa and for the most part stuck to his training compound, making few appearances and largely avoiding the spotlight that Ali so enthusiastically courted.The image of Muhammed Ali as one of the greatest boxers of all time is etched so firmly in our minds today that it's hard to imagine he was ever an underdog. But 'When We Were Kings' reminds us that, in his prime, Foreman too was a great fighter. Bigger, stronger and younger than Ali, Foreman had sliced and diced Joe Frazier to win the heavyweight crown. Ali was 32 then, old for a boxer, and although he was as full of brag as ever, hardly anyone thought he had a chance aainst Foreman. Ali had told everyone that he was going to dance rings around Foreman, but when the two men finally faced off, Ali quickly found Foreman an expert at cutting off the ring so that Ali couldn't get away. Forced to shift tactics, Ali backed up onto the ropes and allowed Foreman to pummel him until the eighth round, when the younger man finally exhausted himself.Sensing the tide had turned, Ali bounced off the ropes and moved in for the kill. In the background, the writers Norman Mailer and George Plimpton can be seen, their mouths open wide in astonishment as Foreman hits the canvas and is counted out. For once, the event lived up to all the hype. For Gast, however, the delay in the fight was only the beginning of his troubles. Money for the film had been put up by a British corporation owned by a Liberian government official. When civil war broke out in Liberia shortly after, however, financing for the film collapsed and Gast was forced to abandon the project. Over the next two decades, as he moved about and continued working, Gast lived with the hundreds of thousands of feet of film he had shot. It wasn't until the late 1980's that he finally got going on it again.Even then, there were hurdles to overcome. For one thing, musical tastes had changed so much with the rise of rap that no distributor was willing to take on a documentary about a concert shot nearly two decades before.That meant the fight had to become the centerpiece of the film. But so much time had passed that the drama of the event had largely faded from public memory. And since the fight itself had been licensed for closed-circuit broadcast in the United States, Gast had no footage of the actual match.Eventually, Gast was able to obtain the rights to the fight footage and get permission to use his films of the concert. Director Taylor Hackford shot new interviews with Mailer and Plimpton, director Spike Lee, and Ali's biographer Thomas Hauser, which Gast uses to knit together the narrative of events. The resulting film brings to new life an era in African and American history that now seems almost surprisingly brief. Most of all, "When we Were Kings" successfully paints a big-screen portrait of Muhammed Ali, a man larger larger than his life.

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