Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Twenty-Three

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#23 — When We Were Kings (Leon Gast, 1996)
In 1974, Leon Gast went to Zaire to make a concert film. Heavyweight champion George Foreman was scheduled to defend his belt in a bout billed excitedly as “The Rumble in the Jungle,” and there was a major concert featuring stars like James Brown and B.B. King being staged in conjunction with it. There with his camera, Gast discovered a compelling store evolving around the fight, in no small part because the challenger, a former champion himself, was one of the most charismatic, vibrant, fascinating figures ever to stride through American life. How do you settle for documenting a live music performance when you can make a film about Muhammad Ali? How do you settle for making a derivative “black Woodstock,” as it was pitched at the time, when you can make When We Were Kings?

By the time the final bell rang, Gast had extensive footage of an event that still stands as one of the most thrilling, surprising, and engrossing in all of sports. The fight itself practically adheres to a three-act structure, right down to turning points placed with ideal timing, and the anguished lead-up to it is equally overstuffed with the sort of tumult, color and suspenseful uncertainty that a skilled dramatist dreams of creating. Gast had all the material he needed for a good film, and then the vagaries of the business conspired to give him the one last thing he needed to make it a great film: the perspective that comes with time.

The rights to the footage were in dispute for around two decades. By the time Gast was cleared to craft it into a film, everything had shifted. The popularity of boxing was on the wane, Zaire’s troubling march through history had progressed and intensified, and Muhammad Ali, so titanic in 1974, had been humbled by disease to a degree that no human opponent could ever manage. The film takes on the paradoxical urgency of a news dispatch from a different era, everything that transpires already looking so different, so distant. Gast weaves the old film together with fresher interviews, enthusiastic remembrances from those who were there, marveling as it gradually transformed from mundane to historic. Of particular note among the commentators are the terrifically odd couple of George Plimpton, projecting the notion of sports fandom as a manifestation of refined intellect, and Norman Mailer, pugnacious and spirited enough to seem like he belongs inside the ring, if not throwing punches then at least shouting strategy suggestions at the boxer in the fleeting respites between rounds.

Leon Gast builds the film upon such graceful storytelling that it holds the same thrill as watching the most unpredictable sporting event unfold live. Every moment seems weighted with possibility, the sense that all outcomes are still feasible depending on the choices in each individual moment. Watching Ali’s face when he stands in his corner, suddenly uncertain about his ability to best the hulking slab of rock of George Foreman, figuring out what to do next has the electricity of the now. In doing that, Gast also brings back the sharpness, skill, boldness, fire and relative youth of Ali in his prime. In When We Were Kings, Gast instills belief that the fighter was indeed a sort of royalty, and that his bygone age deserves to be mourned.

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