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What: “When We Were Kings”

(Gramercy Pictures)

The fight took place a generation ago, October, 1974, and the documentary footage lay in pre-production limbo for 22 years. So much time has passed that the film’s two primary characters, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, today seem almost unrecognizable as the men who staged “The Rumble In The Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire.

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The Ali here is a bantering, jousting verbal hurricane, wiping away all in its path, years before Parkinson’s syndrome muted the most fearsome tongue in the world. The Foreman of 1974 was strong and silent, brooding and foreboding--an entirely different person, really, from the jolly giant seen pitching meatloaf on 1997 television.

The contrast is both startling and sobering, lending a sad nostalgia to the film’s title. Heavyweight champions could carry themselves regally and royally in 1974. Their influence extended far beyond the ring and their realm had not yet degenerated into pro wrestling-level farce. Never mind “boxing champion.” Ali was one of the most important sociopolitical figures of his era.

Much has been written about director Leon Gast’s Herculean assignment in getting his film made and released but, in truth, “When We Were Kings” benefits from its decades on the shelf. The passage of time made it necessary for Gast to “update” his story with narrative from such contemporary commentators as Spike Lee, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton and Ali’s biographer, Thomas Hauser.

The result is a more compelling and provocative production than would have been possible in 1975 or 1976.

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Lee helps to underscore the cultural significance of the event--more than just a championship bout, Ali-Foreman in Zaire represented black America returning to its ancestry. Mailer recounts the fight in fascinating blow-by-blow detail, explaining how Ali engineered an upset by taunting Foreman into such a rage that the younger, bigger boxer attacked Ali in a full-on fury--punching himself weary by the middle rounds.

“You think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned? Just wait till I kick George Foreman’s behind.” That was Ali’s prediction, and “When We Were Kings” is his follow-through. It, too, lives up to the hype.


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