In September 1974, Leon Gast, then a 37-year-old fashion photographer turned filmmaker, set out for Kinshasa, Zaire, with 700 rolls of 16-mm film, 10 camera crews and a contract to make a documentary about a black music festival to be held in conjunction with the George Foreman-Muhammad AN heavyweight championship fight. When Foreman's eye was cut in sparring and the bout was put off for six weeks, Gast remained in Africa, recording Ali's preparation for the fight of his life. Now, 22 years later, after going to court against promoter Don King to gain control of the footage and chasing down funding and a distributor, Gast at last has unveiled his film. When We Were Kings, which opened last week for limited runs in New York City and Los Angeles, was worth the wait.
Far more than just a fight film, Kings offers a vivid picture of a tumultuous event and time. Zaire's dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko—a "closet sadist," in the words of Norman Mailer, who narrates parts of the film—put up $10 million of his impoverished country's money to bring the fight to Kinshasa, along with such entertainers as James Brown and B.B. King. Gast's film captures the emotional impact felt by many of the American blacks visiting Africa for the first time. "We left Africa in shackles and fetters and chains," booms Don King in one scene. "Now we're coming back in splendor."
Most splendorous of all, of course, was Ali (above). These days, largely because Parkinson's syndrome has left him enfeebled and nearly mute, Ali has become a sort of national teddy bear—warm and fuzzy and safely beloved. It is electrifying to see him here, at 32, fiercely fit and animated, crackling with energy and humor. Facing a seemingly invincible foe in the undefeated, 26-year-old Foreman, Ali visibly wills himself to victory, drawing strength from the adoring crowds that followed him wherever he went. "He's in my country," says Ali at one point, contemplating Foreman's predicament. Gast's brilliant film evokes a time when the whole world was Ali's country.