Of all my weaknesses when writing about cinema, my greatest is undoubtedly my lack of experience and ability to analyze documentaries. Part of the reason is that I watch far too few. Another explanation is that I find it far more easy to criticize a piece of fiction, someone’s writing and direction of a made up story. There is a wall of separation, no matter how powerful the product, between myself and the story being told. With a documentary, I’m watching a director show me bits and pieces of reality. What he or she chooses to show and to hide and in what order he or she chooses to show these bits of reality make for interesting debate. Is it as objective as can be? Is there clearly an agenda at stake, etc? Yes, I can discuss those matters, but even when being beaten over the head with a commentary, I hesitate before crying: ‘Well that was a documentary and it was just plain bad.’ Was it? Does the intentional passage of a political agenda make that documentary ‘bad’ (Oxford: 1.Poor in quality; well below standard. 2.Unpleasant)?
It’s with great trepidation therefore that I write down these thoughts on the film ses was gracious enough to dictate to me this month at Filmspotting, When We WereKings. Being about as knowledgeable about boxing as I am about medicine (I was a political science major), I knew next to nothing about the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ that so many Americans, and in particularly, boxing fans, remember fondly. I did of course know who Muhammad Ali is was somewhat aware of George Foreman (he’s the chap who cooks steaks, right?), but overall, my knowledge of the event was hazy at best. Having watched the film last night, I can say for sure that I understand it a lot more now: it’s significance within the boxing community, for many Congolese, for African Americans, Americans at large. It was, for the lack of a better term, a spectacle, a once in a lifetime kind of event.
When We Were Kings doesn't spend time on the life story of either heavyweight boxers involved. The strict necessary is shared. I can confidently say that, for those who know little about both titans, the movie still does a suitable job at showing the curious viewer how highly anticipated the matchup was. Ali, the Black Muslim American who refused to wage war in Vietnam, thus hated by mainstream Americans, and George Foreman, the Goliath, the champion, the destroyer, were to butt heads and fists in Africa, in an outdoor stadium, in front of perhaps a hundred thousand spectators (and so many more on international television). B.B. King and James Brown were invited to play some music in the festivities leading up to the mouth-watering confrontation. All this in the land of Mobutu Sese Soko, the leader of Zaire (as the Congo was known back in the 70s), a leader so ruthless and unsympathetic to democracy as well as many of his own people, it makes one pause before spitting yet another anti-Bush quip.
As I was saying, the focal point of the film is the event and the preparation leading up to it. Much archival footage featuring interviews and press conferences attended by Ali himself are featured. What I found interesting was how director Gast didn’t merely leave the archival footage to itself. While that could have been effective in the sense that the viewer would be invited to conclude his or her own judgements regarding Ali, Gast has invited several journalists to comment on what they saw. Each has smart and sometimes colourful comments and memories to share (the ‘Are you still with that old man!?’ story had me laughing pretty hard). Ali was often, well let me correct that, always quite confident and quick witted when in front of the cameras. It was widely known that Foreman was an absolute monster in the ring. The size of his biceps (shown frequently throughout the film) were more than a little intimidating and the man’s technique was practically second to none. But Ali, never letting down his fans, remained cocky and witty during the months, weeks, days and minutes leading up to the fight. Some journalists praised his courage, while others believed that perhaps this was his way of hiding an underlying fear of his opponent. Who was right, who was wrong (personally I think Ali was too talented/insane to be afraid of anyone at all, but that’s just me) matters little in truth. It was this storytelling through various anecdotes and eye witness accounts that added a lot of charm to the film. I won’t divulge my full thoughts on the sport itself, but I won’t deny that I was... swept in the spectacle of it all. The people involved, the bizarre setting (not that it was done in Africa per say, but more that it was done in Mobutu’s land),etc. Every interviewee pitches in with comments about Ali, Foreman, Mobutu, the anticipation, the preparation, James Brown sweating on stage and then looking high as a kite during an interview, Spike Lee not hiding his pride (which never bothered me particularly, although I know he gets on some peoples nerves), Don King's tireless effort but devious nature, the delay that occurred when Foreman was cut during a practice session, the context of the fight, and much more. The movie isn’t about boxing in general, but more about this one boxing match. It obviously meant very much to a lot of people and, their passion for the subject matter spilled over onto me as I listened and watched. Even their account of how the battle was won and lost was compelling and filled me in on some interesting boxing tid bits.
Through it all however, I felt a little bit sorry for the eventually loser of the match, George Foreman. Praise is given to both participants for their technical and physical prowess, but actual affection is provided to Muhammad Ali, the charmer, the joker. Virtually none is afforded to his opponent Foreman. Perhaps this was more due to both personalities involved. There is no question that both were supremely confident in their abilities to emerge victorious from battle, but while Ali displayed a certain flair and dare I say friendliness in his boasting, Foreman was the more introverted of the two. A mammoth of a man, he did, in essence, come away much more as the ‘villain’ between the two, if only because of his posture, tone and choice of words, which were few. So much ‘Ali boom-ba-yay!’ that there are no left over for the man who, from what I gather, turned out to be a pretty decent bloke in his later years. Oh well.
I think, since I wasn’t alive at the time, that the film captures the peoples feelings and the general mood leading up to the fight. The anticipation and festivities surrounding it were as titanic as both competitors involved. I certainly got that sense from the sounds and images in the film.