Ali-Foreman, 40 Years Later: Morgan Neville on 'When We Were Kings'
In 1996, I was working as a journalist and, in lieu of film school, living on a steady diet of documentaries. I was just finishing my first film, and still trying to figure out the mechanics of what makes a documentary work, when I saw When We Were Kings. Though I'd loved many documentaries, none surprised or excited me like this film.
The first few minutes are like a magic trick. In flashes, interspersed with the credits, we get Muhammed Ali's early career, meet promoter Don King, understand the pending heavyweight bout, and are introduced to black pride, racism in America and post-colonialism in Africa. Cut against a propulsive hard jazz beat from a long forgotten music festival, the elaborate setup is gripping and simple, like great sleight of hand.
The film ostensibly documents "The Rumble in the Jungle"—the 1974 heavyweight-boxing match between Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire—and also the accompanying music festival, Zaire '74. The bout was financed with blood money from Zairian dictator (or, as he liked to say, "President for Life") Mobutu Sese Soko—a crass grasp at tourist dollars and international legitimacy.
When We Were Kings also has all the right ingredients for a perfect soufflé: a deeply charismatic star, an important and nail-biting story and fantastic archival footage. These elements feed the edit, and editing is the most important of documentary skills. Here, the cuts are masterful—moving, rhythmic and cinematic. (Sometimes I love nothing more than a great cut, and this film is full of them.) Only a few historical documentaries come to mind that have such strong building blocks: The Times of Harvey Milk, Hearts of Darkness and Man on Wire. As a filmmaker primarily working with historical stories, I'm always looking for those same pieces from which to build.
There are a thousand ways a film like this can go off the rails, and this project languished unfinished for decades. Leon Gast did great work capturing the original footage, but it was Taylor Hackford who rescued it, making it a reflective film through a few carefully selected retrospective interviews. Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Spike Lee and others frame the story, bringing a lyricism that filmmakers long for; George Plimpton's talk of "the succubus" who haunts Foreman becomes a striking motif. I also marveled that the film didn't go too far in this direction, by not using modern interviews with Foreman, King, James Brown and others in the telling.
When people talk about When We Were Kings as a sports film, I'm surprised. Even though it culminates in a famous and dramatic boxing match, I don't think of it that way. Similarly, I don't see it as a concert film, even though thrilling classic performances are woven throughout. Ali and Africa, music and money, culture and politics—the battle in the ring comes to represent individual struggles, cultural struggles, national conflicts between first and third world countries. It's an example of how a smaller story can be a perfect window into conflicts within the human condition. Those are the stories I love.
Morgan Neville has been making documentaries about cultural subjects for 20 years. His latest film, 20 Feet From Stardom, won the 2013 Academy-Award for Best Documentary.