Sometimes, I flip through my 300-page Unofficial History of the Academy Awards. It gives me ideas for my list of film I think I should see before I die, but as a reference tool, the book is pretty useless. The competitive categories (Best Picture, Director, and Actors) each receive a large picture with a small caption, while the less famous categories (Best Screenplay, Best Song) are merely listed. So when 1996’s winner for Best Documentary, When We Were Kings, received a picture and caption, I put it on my Netflix cue.
The film follows the legendary bout between Muhammed Ali and heavyweight champ George Foreman in Zaire, Africa. In 1974, Ali was already a legendary fighter and champion but lost the belt when he went to jail for protesting the draft. This match was supposed to be Ali’s return to prominence, but Foreman’s skill and power soon made him the odds-on favorite.
The film itself could be fodder for a compelling documentary. Ali granted director Leon Gast almost unlimited access to training and interviews. After the fight, the rights to the film were tied up in litigation for over twenty years. Finally in 1996, Gast’s final edit was shown at Sundance and received offers from 27 different distributors. By the time of the Oscars, Foreman had to help Ali climb the stairs to the stage to receive the statue.
I greatly enjoyed the film, so much that I ponder why so few documentaries ever find a mainstream audience. While blockbusters like Super Size Me and Bowling for Columbine are entertaining and interesting in their own way, Kings’s narrative was much more straight-forward and compelling. Much of the story is recounted by journalists whose accounts are well told, and Gast’s footage of Ali is fantastic and hilarious (“I’m so mean, I make medicine sick!”).
While the film tells substantially more of Ali’s story than Foreman’s, I found Foreman’s story and character development far more interesting. At first, interviewers, historians, and archival footage show Foreman as aloof, withdrawn, and arrogant. Then, after his loss to Ali, he suffered a two-year depression and many wondered if he would return to boxing. Ultimately, he returns to public prominence not just as a champion but a gregarious and beloved celebrity.
I watch one or two fictional films every week – none of which connect with me on an emotional level like this film did. While I’ve only seen a handful of memorable documentaries, When We Were Kings tops my list of essential films.