One would not know Muhammad Ali hadn’t passed away in 1996 if one saw When We Were Kings cold. Its fixation on Ali, always spoken of in past tense, is basically necrophilic, except for the fact that he only just died about two weeks ago today; it culminates in a readymade Oscar death montage set to an title track so embarrassingly on-the-nose that it’s camp.
Nevertheless, I’m immune to neither rousing sports triumphs nor necrophilic pleasures (nor soaring ballads by forgotten 90’s R&B singers), which extends to the fact that When We Were Kings screens on 35mm. Due to its decades in production, it both actively documents and retrospectively reflects on the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle between former heavyweight champion Ali – who’d yet to reclaim the title after his 1967 suspension for draft evasion – and undefeated heavyweight champion George Foreman, many years Ali’s junior. Organizer Don King initially hired director Leon Gast to create a Woodstock-style film on the concurrent Zaire ‘74 music festival. Instead Gast ended up instead with a great deal of Ali training footage; however, when he tried to assemble a film about the fight, he discovered the footage was legally tied up due to the film’s financing by a shell company owned by Liberia’s former finance minister.
According to a 1997 New York Times article, by the time circumstances finally allowed Gast to get around to finishing his film, he decided it had to be “‘brought into the 90’s’ to attract a young audience”. Enter Against All Odds filmmaker Taylor Hackford, whose late-game contributions to the film have not aged well. Hackford shot additional talking head interviews with biographer Thomas Hauser; writers George Plimpton and Norman Mailer, who were ringside at the fight; and Spike Lee, who, as edited into the film, appears briefly to admonish young people for not knowing anything. Especially later in the film the narrative yields near full control to Mailer, to the point where the movie eventually concludes with his telling a story about how Ali recently made a joke about Mailer’s hot young wife, and that pretty much sums up his character – cut to credits. What?
Martin Luther King and Malcolm X appear in the concluding photo montage to symbolize Ali’s involvement with civil rights. Ali’s resistance to the draft is dealt with but not delved into; one could argue that is not the story the movie is trying to tell, but I’d argue that makes for a pretty superficial telling. Perhaps this is the way it represents the 90s: a copacetic depiction of race in the era of Toni Morrison invoking the concept of Bill Clinton as “the first black president” (perhaps not meant as a compliment in context, but widely invoked even by Hillary surrogates to this day) and unemployment for African Americans plummeting from 14 to 8 percent — due to what we now better understand as rising incarceration rates based on Clinton's policies. The timing of Ali’s death is a final, defiant act of resistance: amid Black Lives Matters, unprecedented levels of Islamophobia, and even questions regarding the trans community about individuals’ rights to claim their identity, everyone, even T***p, has to pay respects to a black Muslim who raised awareness of and fought like hell against racial and political power structures — who suffered for it, reclaimed the throne at the Rumble in the Jungle, and ultimately succeeded getting the world to say his name. This isn’t the story When We Were Kings tells, but it’s a hell of a boxing movie.