Punch Lines: Ali Returns to the Screen, Just When We Need Him Most


The Greatest of All Time isn’t the only superlative that applies to Muhammad Ali. He was also the most telegenic, most charismatic, and most voluble athlete-statesman — certainly of the twentieth century and probably ever
after. Almost every photograph of Ali, like those that have accompanied the obituaries and other remembrances that have run in the New York Times and elsewhere since his death, at age 74, last Friday, burns with his incandescence. That magnetism is endlessly multiplied when still images of the Champ become moving ones, as evidenced in Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings (1996) and Bill Siegel’s The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013), two documentaries screening at Film Forum in memory of the inimitable boxer and activist. (These nonfiction titles, just two of many about the fighter, join
Michael Mann’s pulsating 2001 biopic, Ali, which Sony re-released in theaters nationwide on June 10. Will there also be a revival of the rarely shown 1977 docudrama The Greatest, in which Ali stars as himself?)

When We Were Kings remains the best-known doc about Ali and, in spite of some gaucherie by the filmmaker and two of the movie’s interviewees, the most beloved. A chronicle of the “Rumble in the Jungle,” the 1974 bout in Kinshasa, Zaire, between Ali and the heavily favored George Foreman, Gast’s film captures the Greatest during one of the most pivotal moments of his career. He had been banned from the sport from 1967 to 1970 for refusing, on religious grounds, to be inducted into the armed forces during the Vietnam War; the matchup with Foreman, seven years Ali’s junior, was crucial to his post-exile rehabilitation.

Gast, who had earlier made Our Latin Thing (1972), a documentary on Latin
music in New York showcasing the Fania All-Stars, was originally in Kinshasa to oversee a project about “Zaire 74,” a
talent-glutted three-day concert, held in tandem with the fight, that featured black and Latin recording artists from the States sharing the stage with African musicians. When the match was pushed back six weeks owing to an injury Foreman sustained during practice — and after the singers went home — Gast, along with an eminent band of cinematographers including Albert Maysles, focused on the bout; returning to New York with 300,000 feet of film, the director would need two decades to raise the funds required to
assemble When We Were Kings. (Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, one of the editors of Gast’s movie, shaped the bounty of Zaire 74 footage, some of which appears in When We Were Kings, into 2008’s Soul Power, among the most dynamic music docs of the past decade — and one that boasts several more great Ali moments: Spinners lead singer Philippé Wynne dukes it out with the Greatest; the boxer and his corner man Bundini Brown quarrel about freedom while a shirtless Bill Withers, sitting in
between these two formidable smack-talkers, listens in silence, eating his lunch.)

When We Were Kings opens with a blast of fire from Ali: “Yeah, I’m in Africa. Yeah, Africa’s my home. Damn America and what America thinks!” That potent defiance and forthrightness — calling out racism and many other intractable scourges in the U.S. — was merely one aspect of the fighter’s soaring rhetorical might. One of the best moments in Gast’s film shows the joy that spreads across Ali’s face as he, thrilled by his own verbal
pyrotechnics, recites a signature
impromptu rhyme
after a press conference at the Waldorf Astoria announcing the Kinshasa brawl: “Last night I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick.” He pauses before concluding the killer couplet: “I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.”

Ali’s lingual dexterity shows up the inanities of two of the reputedly silver-tongued pundits in the film. Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, who covered the Rumble in the Jungle and are among five talking heads brought in by Gast to expand on the Champ’s legacy, quickly become wearying, too frequently summoned “experts.” Mailer can’t resist trying to speak in Ali’s Louisville drawl; Plimpton is
especially fixated on a tale about a succubus putting a curse on Foreman — a vapid anecdote that Gast stupefyingly chooses to illustrate by cutting to footage of Miriam Makeba performing “Amampondo” during the
Kinshasa concert.

These errors in judgment ultimately don’t sink an otherwise riveting project about Ali at the height of his comeback prowess. But they inadvertently underscore an astute point made by sports journalist Robert Lipsyte in The Trials of Muhammad Ali: “There are so many ways of looking at [the fighter] that have nothing to do with him and everything to do with us.” Bill
Siegel’s documentary has a wider scope than Gast’s, largely focusing on the years — roughly 1964 to 1971, from his conversion to Islam to the Supreme Court’s overturning of his conviction for refusing to report for military duty — that Ali was reviled more than he was revered. Trials abounds with archival riches from Ali’s pariah era, clips that show the Champ trying to stay financially solvent after his boxing ban and proving his indefatigability no matter how scorned: on the college lecture circuit, on talk shows (like WGBH’s Say Brother), and on Broadway (playing the lead, in extravagant Afro and facial hair, in Buck White). “I’m not no slave. I’m Muhammad Ali,” he says in one segment, correcting an interlocutor who insists on referring to him as Cassius Clay. That irreducible declaration contains
infinite power — then, now, and always.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali

Directed by Bill Siegel

Kino Lorber

Film Forum, through June 14

When We Were Kings

Directed by Leon Gast

Universal Pictures

Film Forum, June 15 and 16