Why ‘When we were kings’ (1996) is such a good documentary

My dad, my uncles and other male figures of previous generations always talked about seeing the boxing in the sixties and seventies. Getting up early in the morning to see the fights in the US. I never understood, because boxing nowadays doesn’t appeal to me. But then I saw the documentary When We Were Kings (1996) and I’m not going to lie, it was very emotional. I was emotional. 

George Foreman vs. Muhammad Ali
The documentary focusses on the fight between Ali and Foreman, and while it pays special attention to Muhammad Ali, it also shows the character and trials of Foreman. It’s more of a documentary surrounding the fight called The Rumble in the Jungle, but actual footage of the fight is shown as well. It was held on October 30, 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaïre (which is now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and saw Ali challenging world heavyweight champion Foreman, resulting in a win for Ali in the eight round. It completed the comeback from Ali after being stripped of his title and suspension of 3,5 years after his refusal to comply with the draft and enter the U.S. Army in 1967.

Mobutu, Belgians and Africa
The fight was held in Zaïre and that quite strange to be honest. At the time, the country was led by a dictator called Mobutu, who was vicious. Zaïre had been a private colony to the Belgian king and after gaining independence, it had many troubles leading to the Congo crisis, which Mobutu put an end to with the help of the USA and Belgium. His reign (1965-1997) was full of terror and death, but still the fight was held there. It was a personal triumph of Mobutu and he wanted to put Zaïre on the international map, as to show how rich their culture was.

Black empowerment
The film captures an era where black empowerment was running high and the fight was so much more than this fight alone. It was a movement and a celebration of black culture. To fight in Africa wasn’t so much about the great facilities and stuff, but it was very important to the black community in the US. They went to fight in the origins of civilisation, more specifically black civilisation. In the documentary you see that not only those two boxers went over to Zaïre, but also different dancers and singers. It was a whole festival celebrating black culture.

Insight into the mental state of boxers
This documentary also shows the vulnerability of boxers when they prepare for fights, how they act in their personal life and how their words have consequences. These boxers had such a big responsibility. Not only to themselves, but also to a black community that literally saw them fight for equality and acknowledgement of black culture. That’s what make this documentary so good in my opinion.

This really is one of my favourite documentaries as it deals wit sport, politics and society. Sport has an enormous impact on our lives and we would be foolish to deny it.


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