Every so often I feel compelled to revisit Leon Gast and Taylor Hackford’s solid, powerful documentary on the 1975 Muhammad Ali-George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle,” When We Were Kings, largely because of my fascination not only with this period of sports history, but specifically because Ali is such a formidable, fascinating personality all on his own. His magnetic persona, and his status both as an iconic entertainer and a political force, sustains for me now, as it did when I was a teenager and watching his fights in the ring and his sparring matches with Howard Cosell on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, my interest in a sport—boxing—that otherwise compels relatively little interest for me. Ali is such a spectacular figure in America culture because he was so controversial, so polarizing during the peak of his career during the '60s and '70s—his refusal to fight in Vietnam and his embrace of the Nation of Islam gained him no quarter in the enclaves and on the front porches of white, middle-class Americans in the ‘60s—yet he has retained, perhaps even strengthened his stature by never apologizing for his political stands while the country seems to have adapted and changed around him.
One of the great coups of Gast and Hackford’s film is the interviews they scored with writers George Plimpton and Norman Mailer, who both brilliantly and compellingly elucidate the ambience of being in Zaire for the fight, as well as insights into Ali’s pre-fight psychology. Mailer suspects that Ali feared Foreman’s youth and prowess in his own private moments much more than his arrogant public persona would ever allow to be revealed, and Plimpton relates a story of a Congolese witch doctor who predicted that Foreman would be visited by a strength-sapping succubus who would open the door to defeat at the hands of his older, apparently weaker opponent. Both provide excellent analysis of the fight itself, and in the process provide a window through which to see boxing as a battle of balletic strategy as much as brute force, as well as specific insight into Ali’s lightning-fast moves (extensive use of the right-hand jab, which is telegraphed much more easily to the defender but which Ali successfully used on Foreman because it was the least-expected punch) as well as the deceptive craftiness of the rope-a-dope, which ends up seducing Foreman into punching himself out of the fight long before Ali lands the knockout blow.
Charles Taylor, considering Ali in this bout, and When We Were Kings upon the movie’s release in 1997, wrote the following:
“I think the key to why so many of us, and particularly so many writers, are stunned by Ali lies in this performance. He is one of the most perfect unions of thought and action anyone has ever seen. The conceptual beauty of his victory over Foreman is indistinguishable from the beauty of its execution. Athletes think with their bodies. Physically, Ali was able to express not just strength, but more intelligence and wit than any athlete ever has. The movie ends with Plimpton relating a story about Ali delivering a commencement address at Harvard. Responding to the cry, "Give us a poem!" Ali delivers two words: "Me. Oui!" But the movie has already made a stronger case for him as a poet in the ring. And it's poets who touch people more than kings.”
It is precisely this poetry—his pre-rap freestyling that enraptured so many along the color line in the 1960s, but also his poetry of motion, of thought, of choreographed beauty, of force, and of restrained force—that I’m drawn to whenever I think of Ali, his young self as seen in this film, and even the older version, enfeebled by Parkinson’s Disease. (Mailer intimates in Kings that the onset of this malady was a direct result of the brutality visited upon his beautiful frame in the 22 fights that ensued after the Rumble in the Jungle, a fight many speculated would be the one, win or lose, that would end his career.) The elderly Ali has none of the speed and grace of the man who once murdered a rock, killed a brick and who was so mean he made medicine sick. But he has the dignity that comes from a life which extended so articulately the principles of power he executed in the ring and brought into the social arena as an ambassador for social change and an icon of hope and pride, not only for African-Americans but all Americans. It’s easy to watch When We Were Kings and realize why Ali is thought of in some circles as closer to a god than a mere mortal. Even awareness of his mortality doesn’t get in the way of playing this game; if he’s a diminished god now, When We Were Kings provides ample evidence of his divinity in the ring.
Taylor also suggests that the musical elements of When We Were Kings ironically tend to bring the energy of the film down, and I can see what he means insofar as the film’s commitment to telling the story of the concert built around the Zaire fight seems half-hearted. (The energy having been relatively dialed down, Ali always returns and gooses things to life again.) But rather than excising them altogether, the film might have benefited from going further in the other direction. We get brief intercutting, snippets of B.B. King, a morsel of James Brown, and a thematic motif which casts Miriam Makeba’s somewhat sinister onstage persona as the spirit of the succubus that some (Plimpton included?) believe brought Foreman down. Had the movie allowed for a more expansive canvas that might have showcased complete performances, it too might have gained some of the epic quality that was surely present during the actual event. Taylor also quite correctly observes that the movie skimps a bit on the background which led to the murderous ascendance and foul continuance of President Mobutu Sese Soko, who provided the $10 million to stage the event that he hoped would promote his newly formed country, formerly the Belgian Congo, as a world force. It is in the interweaving of elements such as this that great documentaries are made, and the absence of a particular depth here harms When We Were Kings, keeps it in the realm of the geopolitically superficial, even with such galvanizing figures as Ali and Foreman at its center.
However, each time I see the movie I am captured once again by the slinky energy of The Spinners; I’m reminded of Brown’s inimitable force onstage; the pleasure to be had in watching B.B. King’s face in close-up as he wrings heavyweight emotion from Lucille’s strings; and perhaps most of all, and most frustrating of all, I’m reminded of the pre-fusion velocity of The Crusaders (pianist Joe Sample, drummer Stix Hooper, saxophonist Wilton Felder and trombonist Wayne Henderson) at their peak. Their nimble, super-swift “Young Rabbits” is heard punctuating the opening credits, which interlaces the jazz classic with newsreel footage of Congolese unrest and Ali at his funniest, during a press conference announcing the fight. But we get just a fragment of the song, enough to lodge that amazing sax-trombone syntax into the brain, and then it's gone. Not two minutes in I end up with a powerful desire to hear the whole piece, which the movie denies.
Here then to fulfill that jones is a YouTube clip which features a live recording (not the Zaire performance, unfortunately) of “Young Rabbits.” There is no video to go along with the thrilling music, but I’m grateful for it nonetheless.
I’ve also included a clip from When We Were Kings-- that hilarious press conference announcing Ali-Foreman in Zaire—in which the fighter displays once again the hilarious boastfulness that so polarized and captivated sports fans and regular humans alike back in the early ‘70s.
My next visit with Ali will be courtesy of Mailer’s The Fight, a full-scale accounting of the atmosphere and politics in Zaire as well as the events that led up to the fight itself; I’m expecting a book-length version of the kind of keen, entertaining observations that Mailer provided to raise the bar within the Gast-Hackford movie. And maybe someday someone will undertake to create the ultimate Ali documentary. But until that day, When We Were Kings slakes the recurring thirst for insight into and time spent in the presence of one of the most dynamic figures in American history, and it’s hard to be ungrateful for that even in the face of the movie’s occasional deficiencies.