When We Were Kings: Ready to Fight

Muhammad Ali was thirty-two years old when he arrived in Kinshasa, Zaire, in 1974 to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world. Thirty-two is not prohibitively old for a boxer in the heavyweight division. (As I type, the most celebrated heavyweight boxer in America is Deontay Wilder, who is thirty-three and generally considered to be in his prime.) But Ali was an old thirty-two, having survived forty-six fights and won forty-four of them, not always easily. And his opponent was George Foreman, the champion, who was then considered the most fearsome man on the planet—much more fearsome, certainly, than Ali. George Plimpton was one of a number of writers who were in Zaire, entranced by the fight and the circus that surrounded it. Plimpton wrote in Sports Illustrated about the prefight prayer in Foreman’s corner, led by Archie Moore, who was one of Foreman’s trainers and who had also been, years earlier, one of the greatest and most destructive boxers of all time. “I was praying, and in great sincerity, that George wouldn’t kill Ali,” Moore told Plimpton. “I really felt that was a possibility. George truly doesn’t know his own strength.”

Like many boxing matches, Ali versus Foreman—the so-called Rumble in the Jungle—seemed likely to be a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both. It was hard to tell in advance, and it can be hard to tell, too, in retrospect. Leon Gast, who had made a concert documentary called Our Latin Thing in 1972, had been hired to direct a film about Zaïre 74, the music festival that was supposed to accompany the fight. Then Foreman suffered a cut above his right eye in training camp and the festival was staged without the match, which was rescheduled for six weeks later, and which finally took place at four in the morning, for the convenience of Americans watching via satellite. Neither the concert nor the fight generated anything like the ticket revenue that organizers had hoped for, and soon Gast’s project was facing other obstacles to its completion—including the death in an airplane crash of Stephen A. Tolbert, the finance minister of Liberia, who had been one of its original investors. It wasn’t until the eighties that Gast was able, with help from lawyer David Sonenberg (who would become a producer on the film), to transfer his footage to videotape and begin assembling it into a documentary.

“Part of what people love about When We Were Kings is its evocation of the sense of mischief that Ali generated.”

The eventual result was called When We Were Kings, and it focuses on the fight, not the festival. When it was released in theaters in 1996, it was an unexpected hit, and the next year it was the recipient of the Academy Award for best documentary. It is really two films at once: a serious and sometimes unsettling portrait of clashing cultures and mixed motives, and also a funky and picturesque movie about a grand caper in Africa. After all, no film starring Ali in his motormouthed prime can entirely fail to be a comedy, and part of what people love about When We Were Kings is its evocation of the sense of mischief that he generated, even when he was doing something as dangerous as fighting George Foreman. Especially then.

Spike Lee says, “There was a time, if you called a black person an African, they’d be ready to fight.” This pronouncement comes near the beginning of the film, in one of the interview segments recorded by producer Taylor Hackford in the early nineties, and it gestures toward the strong but slippery notion of black identity that helped define this clash. In 1964, on a tour through Ghana, Nigeria, and Egypt, Ali had declared Africa to be his home. This feeling was doubtless strengthened by the fact that, after Ali joined the Nation of Islam, he had become estranged from America. He refused induction into the military in 1967, and the refusal made him an exile, effectively banned from boxing for more than three years. But in fact, Ali was profoundly American, and in 1974 he arrived in Zaire still knowing little about Africa. When We Were Kings captures Ali in an airplane, sounding genuinely astonished. “Flying over the Sahara Desert on an African airline with all-African stewardesses, with all-African pilots,” he says. “This is strange to the American Negro.” But when it suited him, Ali also described the continent in less flattering terms. “He crazy to go to Africa,” he had said about Foreman, not long after the fight was announced. “They’ll cook him in a pot!”

Ali took great delight in the idea that Africa was enemy territory for Foreman. Local crowds gave Ali a new catchphrase: “Ali, bomaye!”—meaning “Ali, kill him!” And Ali cannily portrayed Foreman as a patriotic American and a faithful Christian, and therefore an honorary “white Belgian,” somehow linked to the colonial power that had ruled that part of Africa for decades. Of course, Foreman, like Ali, was black, a descendant of Africans who had been enslaved in America. And by suggesting that Foreman wasn’t truly black, and therefore couldn’t truly be at home in Africa, Ali was undermining the idea of racial solidarity that he himself relied upon. If Foreman wasn’t truly black, or wasn’t truly African, then who else might be excluded from this club? And why would it make sense to presume that black people around the world should all come together? As the film proceeds, Lee’s early line comes to seem like an ironic description of the event itself: here are two black people at odds over African identity, and very much ready to fight.

“A fight between two blacks in a black nation, organized by blacks and seen by the whole world; that is a victory of Mobutuism.” This was one of the billboards erected around Kinshasa by Mobutu Sese Seko, who had seized control of the Congo in 1965 and, a few years later, renamed it Zaire, as he embarked on a decades-long attempt to refashion the nation in his own image. There is a grim parallel between Ali’s black-power slogans and the similarly bombastic language of Mobutu, who saw the fight as an opportunity to brand Zaire as the cradle of black power. (Another billboard said, “Black power is sought everywhere in the world, but it is realized here in Zaire.”) They both understood the power of a good story, and also, in very different ways, the power of violence. The Nigerian author Wole Soyinka has written witheringly of the “cheap racial emotionalism” that was central to Mobutu’s appeal. Mobutu, Soyinka writes, “flung the cult of the African authenticité in the face of his opponents whenever he ran out of productive ideas—which was all the time.”

Mobutu stayed away from the fight, and from the documentary cameras. In the film, one central character is Don King, who was then a budding boxing promoter, and who is just about as loquacious as Ali, though not quite so inspiring. At one point, a faint smile emerges on King’s lips as he delivers what might be his personal credo. “Nobody does anything for nothing,” he tells Plimpton. “You understand that?” It was Mobutu, though, who funded much of the event, through a front company, and he used government power to try to protect his investment. After the fight was postponed, officials prevented both Ali and Foreman from leaving Zaire, out of fear that they would not return. Gast has said that Mobutu forbade him and his crew (which included, as a camera operator, Albert Maysles) to leave Zaire, too, because the government was hoping to profit from the film they had been hired to make.

There is a second documentary made from the footage shot by Gast’s team. It is Soul Power (2008), an exuberant concert film directed by Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte, an editor on When We Were Kings. We watch as various organizers—including Lloyd Price, the rock-and-roll pioneer—go about the harrowing task they have set themselves: pulling off a three-day music festival in a stadium in Kinshasa, despite the postponement of the boxing match that was supposed to help draw a crowd. Cameras capture Price in a production office exclaiming, “It’s impossible for us to delay, not one day—it’s impossible for us to delay a minute!” An article in the Washington Post called the music festival, which was conceived as a kind of pan-African Woodstock, a “comedy of errors.” One of the headliners, Etta James, refused to perform, and the paper reported that a number of others, including James Brown, played for a “nearly empty” stadium, because ticket prices were too high. The party really got going only on the third of the festival’s three nights, when admission was made free so that locals could attend. Even so, the article quoted one disappointed concertgoer as saying, “There was no place to dance, and we like to dance to our music.”

There is no sense of this disappointment, though, in Soul Power, a film that makes the concert seem like a triumph. This spirit is a tribute both to the deceptive power of canny editing and to the excellence of the performers themselves. The South African singer Miriam Makeba is one of the ones who reportedly performed to hardly anyone, but she is riveting, her eyes wide with defiance and glee. “The colonists where we come from in South Africa call this song ‘The Click Song’—because they cannot say ‘Qongqothwane,’” she says. And the Spinners, one of the most successful R&B groups of the seventies, are a revelation, pouring sweat onto their sparkling jackets as they glide and croon their way through “One of a Kind (Love Affair).” Then again, they had an advantage: they performed on the third night, cheered on by a full stadium.

One of the people who had helped organize the festival was Hugh Masekela, the legendary South African trumpet player who was also, briefly, Makeba’s husband. He was frustrated by the various entanglements that kept the film footage from being seen, and by the way his contribution was minimized in When We Were Kings. In Masekela’s autobiography, published in 2004, he wrote, “I have never seen the film and have not had any desire to do so.” Masekela died in 2018, but he got a chance to make his own contribution to the historical record in 2017, when he coproduced, for Wrasse Records, Zaïre ’74, a live compilation largely devoted to Tabu Ley Rochereau’s Orchestre Afrisa International and Franco’s T.P.O.K. Jazz, two brilliant Congolese bands that appeared at the festival and that helped define Congolese music for a generation.

“Like many of Ali’s victories, this one was memorable not because Ali dominated but because he didn’t.”

After the musicians had packed up, the fighters stayed on, whether they wanted to or not. Ali’s taunts couldn’t disguise the reality of his endless, grueling workouts—more grueling, many would later say, than Foreman’s. Conventional wisdom held that Ali was risking his reputation and maybe (as Moore worried) his life against Foreman. And some observers perceived spiritual risks too. In When We Were Kings, Plimpton tells a story, deadpan, about how a féticheur, or spiritual healer, had told Ali that Foreman would fall prey to a succubus. (Plimpton says “succubus” twice, and each time the film cuts, rather gratuitously, to footage of Makeba onstage.) Norman Mailer—Plimpton’s friend and rival, who is also featured in the film—is more invested in racial mythology. He describes Foreman as the embodiment of “negritude,” a “huge black force” who becomes, in the ring, “insane with rage.” In 1975, Mailer published The Fight, a book that was ostensibly about this match, although of course it was largely about Mailer. He wrote about himself in the third person, a proud and confused white writer adrift in Zaire. “He no longer knew whether he loved Blacks or secretly disliked them,” Mailer confessed, and both the author and the character seemed to hope that the fight would provide an answer.

This kind of wild, senseless hope is the reason why boxing is so transfixing: the brutality of the sport makes it seem important and helps convince those of us watching that something important is being decided in the ring. Just about everybody in the stadium was rooting for Ali, and probably most of the hundreds of millions of people watching were too. They must have been horrified by the sight of Ali, listing backward against the ropes, twisting back and forth while deflecting and (sometimes) absorbing Foreman’s punches. This may not have begun as a strategy, but it evolved into one, a way for Ali to let Foreman tire himself out, making him more vulnerable to Ali’s own punches, which were not quite as heavy but heavy enough to eventually end the fight. Like many of Ali’s victories, this one was memorable not because Ali dominated but because he didn’t. We know that he won, but we also know that he suffered.

The excitement of the fight, the charisma of Ali, the bewitching stratagems of King, the stylish energy of the images: all of it combined to make many people see When We Were Kings as a celebration of black culture. Gast, who is white, told the New York Times that at Sundance, where the film had its premiere, one African American viewer had exclaimed, “Never in my life could I have imagined white hands crafting such black pride.” But in Zaire, the cruel “black power” of Mobutu’s presidency lasted for decades; it was only in 1997, around the time that the film arrived in theaters, that the dictator was at last expelled by an alliance of rebels, who brought their own sorrows.

As for Ali, his reward for beating Foreman was the heavyweight championship, and the opportunity or obligation to keep fighting, which he did, more than a dozen more times. In the eighties, as Parkinson’s disease made Ali slower and weaker and quieter, he came to be revered in America as an inspirational figure. By the time he died, in 2016, it was impossible not to wonder what all that fighting had cost him. “He hurt himself,” Mailer says in When We Were Kings, about Ali’s career after the Rumble, but there’s no reason to think he didn’t hurt himself during the Rumble, and probably long before it. When you watch Ali holding court in Zaire, it’s tempting to look for signs that the awful process has already begun—a slight fuzziness in his consonants, perhaps, or a barely perceptible stiffening in the legs that once glided effortlessly around the ring.

Once the fight was over, Foreman grew “depressed beyond recognition,” as he later put it; for years, he claimed that someone might have poisoned him before the match. A few years later, after losing again, to a tough and tricky fighter named Jimmy Young, Foreman saw a vision in his dressing room and became in earnest what Ali had once accused him of being: a Christian. After a decade away, he returned to boxing in 1987, beginning a comeback as unlikely as any in the sport’s history. In 1994, when he was forty-five, Foreman earned another heavyweight championship title—although by that point there were a few different heavyweight champions of the world.The new George Foreman was not a destroyer but a cheerful and charming figure, and he has since been greatly enriched by his decision to endorse a countertop kitchen gadget, the George Foreman Grill. “I was Humbled in the Jungle,” Foreman recently remarked on Twitter. Nowadays, that loss is an important part of his conversion narrative: it helped bring him low so that he could eventually be raised up.

Unlike Ali, and unlike so many of the people who watched the Rumble in the Jungle, Foreman never seemed particularly convinced that the fight meant anything at all. “I don’t think I’m superior to any previous champion,” Foreman told a group of journalists before the match. He said he wasn’t sentimental about his championship: “It’s something I’ve borrowed, and I’ll have to give it up.” This is a sensible perspective, but boxing is not a sensible sport. In fact, on some indelible nights, it hardly seems like a sport at all. When We Were Kings is an enthralling document of this strange alchemical process: it shows us what a great fight can give us—and what it can take away, too.