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Leon Gast's 'When We Were Kings'

By Sherry Simpson-Dean

From 'When We Were Kings.'

I was recently with a group of friends when my husband introduced a seemingly simple question: Can you create your list of top ten films of all time? That night, I searched our DVD library of favorites, and I spotted an old friend that was always a source of inspiration during the long days and nights of editing my own documentary, AMANDLA!  It was When We Were Kings (Leon Gast, dir./prod.; David Sonenberg and Taylor Hackford, prods.).

The film defines itself early on, with its bold blend of sound, music, wit and visual majesty in keeping with the protagonist, Muhammed Ali. The film tells the story of what came to be known in 1974 as "The Rumble in the Jungle," perhaps the greatest boxing match in history, between the 33-year-old Ali and the 26-year-old heavyweight champion, George Foreman. While the story itself is told through footage of events leading up to this fight, it is told on a multitude of levels that give this film an uncommon depth and texture.

The story of Ali preparing for this fight is right out of Hollywood. This was his comeback against a younger, undefeated—and heavily favored—wrecking machine. Ali's declaration that he would win set the stage for how, through intelligence and psychological strategy, he would pull it off. Ali reminds us of what it takes to win: faith and determination.

Director Leon Gast must be familiar with this formula, since it took him some 23 years to bring the film to the screen—and to reconstruct and re-frame it in a more contemporary context that underscores the true icon Ali has become. Gast presents Ali early in the film as the defiant hero who risked his title as heavyweight champion in 1967 for refusing to be drafted into military service. In doing so, he earned the esteem of oppressed and marginalized people everywhere.

This is 1970s America, complete with plaid jumpsuits, polyester leisure suits and big Afros on parade. And the Rumble in the Jungle—staged in Zaire—would also include a musical showcase, featuring such major artists as BB King, James Brown and Miriam Makeba. Gast incorporates their performances throughout the film, particularly to punctuate seemingly unrelated scenes, but mainly to underscore the integral role—and the inextricable link—of music in both African-American and African cultures. In addition, Gast employs the present-day commentary of such figures as authors George Plimpton, Norman Mailer and Thomas Hauser, filmmaker Spike Lee and West African actor Malik Bowens, all of whom share their recollections and add a contemporary perspective on what was unfolding.

These elements—the music and the commentary—serve to build the story until we are in the ring. The fight itself is the climactic payoff—a rare expression of humanism as these men live out their distinct philosophies of life before our eyes.

We all know how the story ends, yet I still watch in anticipation as Ali dances in the ring. He brings down his opponent with psychological warfare as much as anything else, but most important, he is bolstered by the crowds chanting "Ali boma ye," meaning "Kill him, Ali," a constant refrain from the Zairean people over the month-and-a-half that Ali and Foreman spent in the country.

But back to my top ten list: When We Were Kings will be a benchmark against which I will be measuring the other nine.


Sherry Simpson-Dean was executive producer and producer of AMANDLA! a revolution in four part harmony.