s audience in “WhenThroughout the year I have been studying the documentary ‘When We Were Kings’ based around the 1974 World Boxing Championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. The fight was staged in Zaire, Africa and is subsequently predominantly an African influenced film, although still effective in delivering the story and exposition of one of the greatest sporting moments of our modern era. Through use of a complex sound track – including live sound and interviews from the past – Gast is able to entice me to continue viewing the colourful, musical and exciting documentary. Using a majority of archival footage combined with a cast of experts and witness’ Leon Gast captures the moment whilst providing us with the necessary background information and detail. A number of questions are asked and social issues raised providing us with a contrast of morals and ideals creating a fast moving, intriguing look at an event adopted in to boxing folklore as the greatest of all time. Although Gast is unable to incorporate much of his craft – due to a majority of archival footage – he is still able to build tension and demonstrate importance through his shot selection, use of motifs and selection of music.
When I viewed Gast’s dramatic yet uplifting look at the 1974 World Heavyweight Boxing title fight in Zaire, I was engaged through his use of evocative and up-beat music. Music plays almost constantly throughout and is effective in establishing a mood of fun and excitement about the brutal bout. To begin the film Gast introduces us to the tribal rhythms of Zaire, I believe to signify the origins of both fighters and the importance of cultural links between America, Africa and the evolution of popular culture. Gast also employs the use of a mysterious African women – a dancer and performer – through use of close up’s and intense, tension building rhythms. She appears throughout the documentary and we are told later that a witch doctor predicted Foreman might be defeated by use of a voodoo spell involving a “woman with fluttering hands”. Whether there is any element of truth to the prediction, Gast’s inclusion of this native African lady is clearly to provide an element of mystery and intrigue around not only the fight in Zaire, but also Ali’s greatness. The tribal rhythms and traditional African music work well for Gast and are effective in portraying the mood and atmosphere surrounding events leading up to the shock defeat of then heavyweight champion of the world, George Foreman. Gast’s use of live footage from the “African Woodstock” of superstars of the music of the day – James Brown, and BB King – I found particularly effective in portraying the importance of a culture returning to it’s origins. The energy created by performers such as James Brown can do nothing but up the tempo and build excitement, while the slow, sombre blues solos of BB king remind us of Ali’s daunting task. Gast has been able to provide tempo and excitement to a lot of his black and white / archival footage and engages us by launching in to exciting music straight after the slower, almost monotonous – compared with the rest of the film – recounts of historical witness’ such as Norman Mailer and George Plimpton. The music used by Gast is by Ali’s definition the music of “my brothers” or “black man’s music” and what better music to reflect the mood and atmosphere at the pinnacle of Ali’s career and breaking free of black America.
Gast began filming ‘When We Were Kings’ in 1974 after he was hired to go and film the rock concert that was to be staged alongside the fight. Gast took so much footage that it took him twenty three years to sort and find backing for his Ali epic, and it all paid of through Gast’s achievement at the Academy Awards. For Gast to be that involved – that he shot so much relevant footage – and to have pursued his vision until completion, he must have received so much inspiration from Muhammad Ali and the events surrounding the 1974 Championship bout. This was clearly portrayed to me by the depths that the film reached. Ali was revolutionary in ‘black’ America’s
Ideal’s, whilst still pushing messages to the white and black kids back home ” Quit eatin’ candy..We must whup Mr. Tooth Decay” and Gast demonstrates this to us throughout, showing us the arrogant and boastful Ali as well as the quiet homely man outside of a log cabin with friends and family playing of the effectiveness of Ali’s immortal charisma. The concept of the fight is effective in appeal and Gast brings this to our attention through the contrast he provides between Africa and America. One scene which demonstrates the radical changes of the era – when Ali is on his way to Zaire and comments quite thoroughly on the presence of black pilots and crew, he is quite clearly amazed demonstrating importance for the emancipation of Africans living in America (a topic relevant to the era and to today). Gast also has managed to capture an important movement in the history of popular music- the acceptance and explosion of ‘black man’s music’. Gast includes stellar concert footage of James Brown and BB King drawing important parallels between Ali’s global domination of boxing and the worldwide influence of hip hop, soul, rhythm and blues and jazz which is still present today and is a part of ‘popular culture’. The individual duel for the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship in itself is effective in providing another drawcard for Gast. Ali’s defiance of America- in refusing to enter the armed forces during the Vietnam war- had resulted in a jail sentence and loss of the title. This was Ali’s return, the greatest of all time was returning to the ring to face one of the most formidable individuals ever to step in to the square shaped arena, making it a bout no red-blooded American and no self respecting sports fan worldwide could miss. Gast’s subject matter – the fight itself – and people involved – namely Ali – are perhaps one of the most appealing events to be covered in sports history (with relation to real life relevance)
The people involved in Gast’s documentary are remarkably effective in delivering the recount of the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ combining aging experts with those who were scattered amongst the commotion that was the concert and fight in Zaire, 1974. Spike Lee appears throughout to provide a modern, filmmakers perspective while George Plimpton and Norman Mailer commentate, adding excitement and human dimension to the fight. Mailer and Plimpton covered the fight in the seventies and provide us with a credible recount and are effective in providing professional detail for us helping us understand some more technical angles explored by Gast.