Decades ago, documentary filmmaker Leon Gast attempted to complete a feature about the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” championship bout between boxers Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire.
Sundry complications, though, held up the project until its release in 1996.
It was well worth the delay. From Gast’s perspective of modern history, the six weeks Ali and Foreman were forced to spend waiting in Africa for their fight to take place now looks like an important moment in America’s cultural understanding of African American roots.
In a nutshell, Ali had been stripped of his heavyweight champion title because his opposition to the Vietnam War-era draft had landed him in prison.
Reigning champ Foreman agreed to a Don King-promoted match in Kinshasa, but after all parties got there the fight was put off.
Gast captures the charismatic Ali, in the ensuing days and weeks, going out among the people and getting to know them while the more reclusive Foreman keeps to his own company.
Meanwhile, King brings over black American artists such as James Brown and the Spinners to mix it up with African musicians.
The sense of excitement and connection is thrilling, as is the boxing footage of Foreman and Ali finally taking swings at one another in a titanic duel.
Writers George Plimpton and Norman Mailer, each of whom was covering the fight as journalists, are on hand to recollect the details. Whether you’re a fight fan or not, this is a unique experience and a fascinating insight into America’s sense of identity.
When We Were Kings Trailer: