Movie Review: When We Were Kings (1996) #AtoZChallenge

I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: When We Were Kings
Release Date: October 25, 1996
Director: Leon Gast
Production Company: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

On October 30, 1974, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman met in a heavyweight title bout in Kinshasa, Zaire, an event nicknamed “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Ali, an Olympic gold medalist and heavyweight champion in the 1960s, lost three prime years of his career after he refused to be conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War.  Meanwhile, Foreman, also an Olympic gold medalist, was younger with a strong punch and a history of overpowering wins over the top boxers of the era.

Holding the fight in Zaire was a historic choice as the event became a coming-out party for post colonial Africa.  In addition to the boxing match, which was viewed on tv by a record 1 billion people worldwide, there was a concert featuring top African musicians alongside African American stars like James Brown and B.B. King.  The fight itself is delayed after Foreman injures his eye in training, allowing everyone to spend more time in Zaire.

The documentary captures a fascinating intersection of sport, culture, civil rights, and politics.  There is a great amount of archival footage from the time, including Ali in awe of flying on an airplane with a an all-Black crew for the first time. In addition to the historic film and photographs, the film includes interviews with Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Spike Lee, Malik Bowens and Thomas Hauser who also provide narration for important events.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I was flying home from Great Britain in 1998 and watched this movie on the seatback television on Virgin Atlantic. I was so engrossed that the flight attendant chastised me to turn the screen off since the plane was approaching landing.  I later rewatched it on video so I could find out what happened at the end.

What Did I Remember?:

I think I remembered it pretty well.

What Did I Forget?:

It was less about forgetting things and more that in the intervening years I’ve learned more about Ali, and some of the musical artists and interviewees in the movie so things seemed more significant.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

You don’t have to care about boxing to like this movie.  This documentary captures the feel and excitement of a major event in the history of Africa and really the first big media event that focused on African people and African descendants as the key figures.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

The lack of interviews with Ali and Foreman at the time this movie was made is a big loss. Also, most of the people they did interview were old white men which is kind of jarring with the African diaspora theme.  The movie leans in favor of Ali, which is a bit of a shame since Foreman is a very interesting figure, one who would reinvent his public persona by the time this movie was released in the 1990s.  Throughout the movie, Ali leads Zaireans in the chant of “Ali Bomaye” which means “Ali, kill him.”  One of my favorite parts of the movie is a clip where Foreman says he’d not want people to chant “Foreman Bomaye” but instead “Foreman loves Africa.”

Is It a Classic?:

Yes. This is an all-time great documentary and sports film.

Rating: ****1/2

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with W:

  1. When Harry Met Sally…
  2. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
  3. Winged Migration
  4. The Wizard of Oz
  5. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

What is your favorite movie starting with W?  What is your guess for my X movie (Hint: my “X” movie will actually start with a number and involves a submarine)?  Let me know in the comments!

7 thoughts on “Movie Review: When We Were Kings (1996) #AtoZChallenge

  1. Hi Liam,
    I feel like we need our own special symbol of code as we approach the end of the A-Z Challenge every year. Something like the Vulcan hand signal. I’m feeling utterly exhausted, exhilarated, frustrated and annoyed with myself for not having my photos well organized. I’ve wasted so much time looking for photos, but I guess I’ve made some improvements along the way and I’ve certainly enjoyed looking through so many of my old photographs. I really cherish them, the people and the memories.
    You’ve brought our attention to some important moments and issues through your series and I really appreciate what you’ve done. It’s fantastic and I really appreciate blogging which is on the more serious side of things as well. There’s so much rubbish out there, and it seems to me that if something goes viral, nine times out of ten, its silly if not idiotic. There’s much more important stuff out there.
    It’s funny you should mention him, as I’ve really only heard of him in relation to the George Foreman Grill.
    While Mohammed Ali is recognised for his boxing, I also feel he had the gift of the gab and had some wonderful quotes. Here are a couple of my favourites:
    “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.”

    “It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.”

    “Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even.”
    . “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

    “I’m young; I’m handsome; I’m fast. I can’t possibly be beat.”

    “Don’t count the days; make the days count.”

    When it comes to movies starting with W, I’ll go with your top two.
    Hope you’re having a great day.
    Best wishes,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind comments. You always make me feel good about my blogging.

      I started doing this movie rewatch/review thing in January, and When We Were Kings was one of the first movies I watched so when it went out today I was like “what on earth did I say about that movie?” :)

      I decided that since I’d be home a lot I’d do a second a-to-z on documentaries and I’m watching those a day or so ahead of the posts but I’m getting the feeling that I’m not doing them justice as the month wears on. Luckily, I just have one post left to write!

      We had a Foreman Grill and it died just this month. I was upset about it until my wife reminded me that she got it over 20 years ago. So it more than fulfilled its duty. Maybe I can get another one online?

      Those five W movies aren’t ranked, they’re alphabetical, but I definitely need to rewatch those first two sometime soon!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The month certainly grinds on with the A-Z and the last few letters are the most problematic. Well, at least they seem to be for me each year. However, they also get me thinking, which is an important aspect to them challenge. The alphabetical nature of the challenge always extends my scope of thinking and is very productive. When I was doing my series “Letters to Dead Artists” and “Letters to Dead Poets” a few years ago, the end of the alphabet took me into Chinese and Japanese art and poetry, along with Irish Yeats. It was very educational.
        I’m pretty sure you should still be able to buy a Foreman Grill, at least on ebay. It wasn’t that long ago that I recall seeing the ads.
        Good luck with X today.
        Best wishes,


          1. That sounds like bliss, Liam. I’m currently reading the Coffee Share posts while having a cup of tea. This could explain why my day goes so out of whack and I stay up so late. However, school goes back tomorrow and that’s the end of the holidays. I’m not sure how much of an actual difference that will make. The kids will be doing school from home for the next two weeks. However, it is at the very least, a psychological shift and I want us all to get back on deck, not that my husband’s deviated at all. He’s worked through. He’s an absolute trooper.
            Best wishes,


  2. I’m not a fan of boxing but I can understand where this would be a fascinating movie about major event and point in history. I’ll have to check it out.

    When Harry Met Sally is one of my all time favorite Romantic Comedies. I haven’t watched it in years though – I’m afraid it might ruin my happy memories.

    Weekends In Maine

    Liked by 1 person

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