“It is befitting that I leave the game just like I came in — beating a big bad monster who knocks out everybody and no one can whup him.” These words from Muhammad Ali were used in When We Were Kings, and the landmark documentary stands as a cinematic monument to the athlete of legend after his death Friday evening.
It took producer-director Leon Gast more than two decades to make When We Were Kings due to various financial and legal complications. Released in 1996, the doc centered on the 1974 heavyweight championship match in Zaire between Ali and George Foreman, dubbed “Rumble in the Jungle.” Gast incorporated various interviews (including director Spike Lee) and 400 hours of footage of and surrounding the event to craft a story.
EW’s Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote in her review at the time, “All sad thoughts of Ali as a wounded warrior fall away in the glow of seeing the champ at his best.”
As we look back on the life of Ali, When We Were Kings stands as an achievement for many reasons. It wasn’t just a moment for Ali. It wasn’t just a moment for cinema. It was also a moment for African-American culture as Ali rose as a symbol for perseverance, determination, and pride.
Read more critical reviews of When We Were Kings from the time of release.
Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly)
“The music, by turns throbbing and sinuous, binds the images of African children and white music promoters, boxing coaches and photographers, press conferences and training sessions, into a gorgeous whole that brings the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ alive with a vibrancy guaranteed to move the souls of even the most boxing illiterate. In one moment of poetry, Don King describes all the participants as being enveloped in ‘an aura of scintillating splendor.’ For once, he was simply stating the facts.”
Richard Corliss (Time)
“If anyone deserves an award, it is Ali; his charisma makes the film. A preacher whose fans are his congregation, he exhorts children to ‘Quit eatin’ candy … We must whup Mr. Tooth Decay.’ He hectors in poetry: ‘If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned,/Just wait till I kick Foreman’s behind.'”
Todd McCarthy (Variety)
“The incredible story of the ‘Rumble in the Jungle,’ the 1974 heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, is related in enormously entertaining fashion in When We Were Kings. Anchored by the incomparable charisma of Ali, who could be ‘rediscovered’ by young audiences on the basis of the film, this snappily paced docu also can be profitably positioned based on the event’s status as a watershed moment in modern black culture and history.”
Rita Kempley (The Washington Post)
“Watching the picture, it’s impossible not to think of Ali today, trembling and unsteady as he is. And you wonder as you stare at the dazzling young athlete: Would he do it all again if he knew the price? His biographer, Thomas Hauser, assures us that he would, that he loves every day of being Muhammad Ali.”
Rogert Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times)
“Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings, which just received an Oscar nomination, is like a time capsule; the original footage has waited all these years to be assembled into a film because of legal and financial difficulties. It is a new documentary of a past event, recapturing the electricity generated by Muhammad Ali in his prime.”
Edward Guthmann (San Francisco Chronicle)
“On a deeper level — and this is where When We Were Kings exceeds its expectations and becomes a great film — Gast examines African American pride. He records a time when Ali, loud and ‘pretty,’ became a worldwide symbol of black self-determination and gave his brothers a bolder, stronger image of themselves than they’d ever known.”