Right from the beginning of “When We Were Kings,” the documentary about the 1974 heavyweight championship fight which took place in Zaire (dubbed “The Rumble in the Jungle”), we begin to see this film is about much more than Muhammad Ali’s struggle for the title against champ George Foreman. Its also about the struggle for freedom, equality and self-knowledge for the black man in America, Africa and the entire World.
The group of characters we meet (Ali, Foreman, Don King, James “way-to-damn-happy-‘cuz-way-too-damn-stoned” Brown, half-pint giant Norman Mailer, George Plimpton to name a few) are more interesting and incredible than many non-documentary film maker could dream up. The seemingly total access and seemingly total coverage the film makers enjoy makes us forget at times that this isn’t some Hollywood fabrication.
Ali comes to symbolize the plight of the black man whereas Foreman, inexplicably but undeniably, comes to represent the American establishment. Ali actually feels he is fighting for the future of the black man and we–through brilliant manipulation by the film makers–are sucked into his hubris. One of the reasons its so easy for us to fall for this premise is because we get to see that Ali cares about others as much as he cares about himself (i.e. a whole hell of a lot).
The only negative thing I can say about this movie pertains to the inclusion of Spike Lee as a commentator. He had absolutely nothing to do with the boxing event and has no real insight to share unlike Mailer and Plimpton (they were ringside for the fight and became great friends with Ali). Luckily Lee’s screen time totals no more than five minutes.
The actual fight scenes are absolutely engrossing as the underdog, with the crowds approval, comes back from the ropes to beat the hell out of his opponent. F— Rocky Balboa, this is the real deal.