Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Southpaw stepping into the ring next week, and the Rocky spinoff Creed on its way this autumn, let’s cheer on some of the great boxing movies of yesteryear.
There’s never been a more charismatic American athlete than Muhammad Ali, and there’s never been a more compelling and thrilling sports documentary than When We Were Kings, Leon Gast’s account of Ali’s famed 1974 “Rumble In The Jungle” fight against George Foreman in Zaire. Opening with a blistering contextual clip montage set to drumming from the star-studded three-day soul-music festival that accompanied the boxing event, Gast’s Oscar-winning film hinges on the magnetic motormouth charm of its subject. At a press conference, Ali boasts about his speed (“I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark”) and calls out those who don’t believe he can win, then runs the streets of Africa while adoring crowds chant “Ali, boma ye!” (translation: “Ali, kill him!”). In the film’s wealth of archival footage, he’s a larger-than-life personality of grandiloquent wordplay, boastful arrogance, and force-of-nature masculinity.
Gast’s film charts Ali and Foreman’s time in Zaire during the lead-up to their showdown, a period that was extended due to a Foreman injury, and which also saw concert performances from the likes of James Brown and B.B. King. Through it all, Ali proclaims his kinship with his African compatriots while Foreman, a bruiser out of his element in this foreign land, grows increasingly uncomfortable about Ali’s media taunts and the nation’s loving embrace of his opponent. Driven by eloquent interviewed narration from Gore Vidal and George Plimpton—who both attended the fight, and can be seen in a photograph at the moment of Ali’s unlikely knockout blow—When We Were Kings generates an amazing amount of suspense from its taut depiction of the titanic challenge Ali faced in going up against world champion Foreman. And ultimately, it proves a simultaneously scintillating and insightful portrait of the way in which, at the moment of truth, he used his greatest skills (cunning, patience, confidence, and the power to rally supporters to empower him) to achieve the seemingly impossible.
Availability: When We Were Kings is available on DVD through Netflix or possibly your local video store/library.