The 1996 documentary film “When We Were Kings” centers around the sport of boxing. Specifically, it delves into one of the most iconic moments in the history of boxing, the “Rumble in the Jungle.” This event took place on October 30, 1974, in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and saw two legendary figures in boxing, George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, go head-to-head for the world heavyweight championship.
At the time, George Foreman was the reigning heavyweight champion, having defeated Joe Frazier, and he was largely seen as invincible due to his immense power and dominance in the ring. Many believed that Muhammad Ali, who had previously been stripped of his titles and banned from boxing for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War, would be easily defeated by the younger and seemingly more potent Foreman.
However, “When We Were Kings” is not just about the boxing match; it captures the cultural, political, and social backdrop against which this event occurred. With Zaire’s then-dictator Mobutu Sese Seko looking to boost his international image, he bankrolled the fight and tied it to a music festival featuring top African and American artists, hoping to bridge the gap between post-colonial Africa and the African diaspora in America.
Ali, always the master of mind games and psychological tactics, used the time leading up to the fight to endear himself to the African public, while also devising a strategy to counter Foreman’s brute strength. His tactic, later known as the “Rope-A-Dope,” involved leaning back against the ropes and allowing Foreman to tire himself out, after which Ali would capitalize and go on the offensive.
The documentary masterfully stitches together archival footage, interviews, and the pulsating rhythms of the music of the time, offering viewers an immersive experience of this watershed moment. Ali’s unexpected victory further solidified his status as one of the greatest boxers and sports personalities of all time, while the event itself left an indelible mark on the cultural history of the 20th century.