WHEN WE WERE KINGS :: A Leon Gast documentary


Back in the ‘60’s (no-one, who was there, ever calls them the Nineteen Sixties), growing up as teenagers, we mostly had books for our entertainment, and although I liked reading novels, I always preferred non-fiction books. The facts always seemed far more interesting than the stuff people were making up. And it’s been the same with movies - I like feature films, but I always preferred watching documentaries.

Back in the ‘60’s we could read about anything but because the films we saw were still mostly feature movies, and we didn’t yet have TV in South Africa, we didn’t know what these events actually looked like.

We could read about stuff like the men landing on the moon, or Manchester United winning the European Cup with George Best, or other pivotal events of the age, but we couldn’t watch them happening live, only, if we were lucky, maybe weeks later on the newsreels in the supporting programs for regular movies in the bioscopes.

So, when we started to see these events for ourselves, we became hooked on the documentary films that covered them or told us the inside and background stories to these historical events. And it was the music and the musicians that we most wanted to see, so films like Woodstock, Don’t Look Back and Let It Be were manna from heaven for us rock fans.

I have seen a lot of documentaries over the years, mostly music ones, and was also very fortunate to land up being a part of the Oscar-winning documentary, Searching For Sugar Man, which was pretty weird, but to pick just one documentary is not easy and with the proviso that it must be made by an African or on an African subject, makes it even more difficult.

There are a few African documentaries that would make my final list, like Punk In Africa, Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, Have You Seen Drum Recently?, Sea Point Days, and Under African Skies, but the one documentary that would always top my list is Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings, the 1996 Academy Award-winning documentary film about the famous 'Rumble in the Jungle' heavyweight championship match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

Being huge sports fans back then, we followed most international sports, especially football, cricket, tennis, and boxing, and those were the years of the great heavyweight fighters like Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, and Muhammad Ali, who was stripped of his crown and banned from boxing after refusing to be drafted into the United States Army during the Vietnam War, effectively ending his career as heavyweight champion of the world.

While Ali was away from the sport, George Foreman emerged as the man to beat in the heavyweight division and he was as ruthless and unbeatable a fighter as had ever fought in that division. So, when Ali’s ban ended, a title fight between him and Foreman was arranged by Don King to be held in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) on October 30, 1974.

The fight would be funded by the brutal dictatorship of Zaire’s then leader, Mobutu Seso Seko, who was keen to present a positive image of Zaire to the world. So he not only sanctioned the fight, but also helped arrange and fund a huge concert, dubbed the 'Black Woodstock,' to be held at the same time. That saw artists like James Brown, Bill Withers, Miriam Makeba, B.B. King, The Crusaders, and Manu Dibango, to name a few, flying into Zaire along with a host of celebrities like (my personal hero) Norman Mailer, Jim Brown, George Plimpton, Spike Lee and Thomas Hauser.

It was a massive explosion of boxing, music and celebrity in this central African country and Leon Gast managed to capture it all, including the tension and excitement that existed as the fight approached, and which only got more intense after Foreman accidentally cut his hand and the fight was delayed by a few weeks until he was fit to fight.

The film shows a lot of Ali discussing his feelings and beliefs regarding Africans and African-Americans and how he built his relationship with the people of Zaire during the weeks of the delay. This mutual love between Ali and the Zairian people contrasted with Foreman's awkward and unsuccessful efforts to build his own popularity, which started off on a bad note when he arrived in Zaire with his pet German Shepherd dogs, which, unknown to him, were hated symbols of the security forces who policed the local inhabitants during the previous brutal Belgian occupation.

The adored Ali jogged around the streets of Kinshasa followed by hordes of local fans who chanted “Ali, bomaye! Ali, bomaye!”(“Ali, kill him. Ali, kill him!”). The stage was set, and when it finally all came together on that historic night, the fight lived up to its billing as the 'Greatest Boxing Fight Of All Time,' with few pundits giving Ali a chance in hell of beating Foreman.

When We Were Kings shows most of the fight itself, particularly Ali's famous 'rope-a-dope' tactic, which caused Foreman to expend too much energy and resulted in his (spoiler alert!) sensational eighth-round knockout, which actually happened just a short while before a monsoon arrived that washed out the proceedings completely.

A brilliant soundtrack album from When We Were Kings was released in 1997 and features some of those musical festival performances, in addition to the title track duet, When We Were Kings, performed by Brian McKnight and Diana King, and Rumble In The Jungle, the final recording done by The Fugees, in a collaboration with A Tribe Called Quest and Busta Rhymes.

There is also a sister documentary to When We Were Kings called Soul Power, a 2008 documentary film directed by Jeff Levy-Hinte, which focuses on the music festival in Kinshasa which accompanied the Mohamed Ali and George Foreman fight. But that is only for completists who may want to see the whole story, but for me, when it comes to African documentaries that I can watch often and always enjoy, nothing beats (Ali in) When We Were Kings.


Sugar is one of the stars of the Oscar-winning Searching For Sugarman, which acclaimed South African director Craig Foster picked as his favourite African documentary. Searching For Sugarman is about Sugar's hunt for Rodriguez, a rock star who didn't know he was famous. Sugar is also a music writer; co-owner of the iconic Cape Town record store, Mabu Vinyl; and co-author, with Craig Bartholomew Strydom, of Sugar Man: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez.


:: Best Documentary, Oscars, 1997
:: 98% critics rating, Rotten Tomatoes
:: #3, Top 100 Sports & Fitness Movies, Rotten Tomatoes, 2018
:: #47, Top 100 Documentaries, Rotten Tomatoes, 2018
:: Special Jury Recognition, Sundance, 1996
:: Best Documentary, National Society of Film Critics Awards, 1996
:: Truer Than Fiction Award, Film Independent Spirit Awards, 1996
:: Legacy Award, Cinema Eye, 2018
:: Winner of 12 international awards
:: 8/10 rating on IMDB


:: Director: Leon Gast
:: Stars: Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Don King, James Brown, BB King, Mobutu Sese Seko, Spike Lee, Norman Mailer, Miriam Makeba
:: Location: DRC