When We Were Kings: A Response
Posted on + a girl who in 2012, updated here in January 2014.
Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman, in the Congo, in the 1970s. It would be nearly impossible for this to be a bad movie. Luckily for us, it's better than good. It's intoxicating.
The Rumble in the Jungle is the kind of seminal cultural moment that you might regret not being alive for, or not being aware of. Like Nirvana's "Unplugged" session on MTV, or JFK's campaign, or the invention of boxed cake, there are a lot of happenings that we miss. I'm a little wistful that I wasn't around to see this one.
The spectacle is the most compelling aspect, and maybe for Ali, always has been. Ali’s persona is so bold, even overwhelming, and endlessly charming.
As a viewer, you cannot help but love him. When he gets riled up and yells “I’m Gonna. We Gonna. I’m Gonna!” after the match is postponed, it’s just so beautiful and so boundless.
I can remember watching the match where Tyson bit through that infamous ear: I was sitting on the floor of my parents' room, watching the fight and pretending like I was keeping up. So quick you might have missed it, or might have thought you misunderstood, Tyson had chomped through Evander Holyfield's ear. I was disgusted, but I was hooked. Drama and guts and brain and brawn, all smashed together and emerging unrefined. Since then, I have both been attracted and repelled by boxing. And I will always love Ali.
But the spectacle is more than these two phenomenal men. In the movie, James Brown performs a sweaty, glorious number, and Don King speaks in signature tongues. Norman Mailer adds in a quality anecdote that I'll let you watch the movie to discover. These are cultural icons, and in retrospect, we might wonder why an event like this might attract such a crowd and crew. We might find a bit of feeling courtesy of writer George Plimpton:
“What a fighter, what a man,” Plimpton declares.
That is, to me, a beautiful sentiment and a simple way of capturing what it is about these men and this fight that was so appealing. Fights are barbaric, surely. But in this context, with these men, their guts and their devotion are fully on display. We're not just watching men fight, we're watching Titans. We're watching heroes.
Ali says it best when he describes that, if he were up there alone, he would be afraid.
Instead, he has all of the people of the Congo and Africa behind him, and his God with him. How can I be scared? Ali asks. My God controls the universe.
Surrounding this Rumble in the Jungle are a lot of valuable points about appropriation, what it represented for interracial relations in the US and abroad, and post-colonialism. Some say the fight fostered a proud, intellectual revival in the black community globally, and that may be so. It's a fascinating theory. Others say that it propagates the black-person-as-entertainer stereotype that is ultimately repressing, and I can see that too. Academic discussion about this movie is dense and valuable. In my reading and review, I can see all of those things. However when I see this movie, while I am intrigued by the questions raised regarding racial identity, I am more fascinated by the characters and qualities of these two men. I see their stories, their confidence, grace, fearlessness and ambition. Those qualities, that story, is why we connect and why we care. Important to know for purposeful and political journalism that with too much focus on larger political forces, the individual human story can become overshadowed.