Synopsis by Mark Deming
In 1974, boxers Muhammad Ali and George Foreman came to the still-emerging and politically unstable African nation of Zaire for what Ali called the "Rumble in the Jungle," a highly publicized world heavyweight championship fight. Documentarian Leon Gast flew to Zaire to film both the fight and a music festival (featuring B.B. King, The Pointer Sisters, and Miriam Makeba) organized by promoter Don King. Gast's footage was shelved for 22 years due to legal and financial problems, but when it was finally released in 1996, When We Were Kings provided a vivid portrait of the controversial Ali. At 33, he was considered past his prime for the Zaire fight, and his refusal to serve in the U.S. military on moral grounds was still an issue in the minds of many. But here, Ali displays strength, skill, intelligence, and tremendous charm, making it clear how he became one of the most renowned figures in the world of sports. And, while George Foreman is best known today as a genial commercial pitchman, he's seen here as a strong, forbidding opponent, not especially articulate and seemingly unstoppable. The film also features interviews with several notable fight fans, including Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, and Spike Lee. A fascinating document of a great moment in sporting and cultural history, When We Were Kings received an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and won a Special Jury Recognition Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.