When We Were Kings

Documentaries are everywhere, about every possible subject, and most of them are basically glorified Wikipedia entries designed for people too lazy to read a book; people with attention spans so short, filmmakers have to throw in every trick in the book, from snazzy animations to energy-boosting soundtracks, to keep you from bailing on your stream.

But when a genuinely good story comes along, one that can only truly be told with sounds and images no set of words can adequately capture… now that’s a documentary, documenting our lives and histories so that future generations can time travel to the past for an hour and a half and really understand what it was like to be there, then.

When We Were Kings is that kind of documentary. It delivers a story that represents the epitome of so many worlds: music, sports, culture, politics, and history. What it has to say about race, especially America’s own legacy and history with race, it says more eloquently than a thousand academic essays and articles published in the last five years. When We Were Kings is beyond woke, because the story takes place half a century ago, at the dawn of a cultural reawakening that is still taking its time to truly blossom.

It is the story of the great Muhammed Ali and his rival, the fierce and dark George Foreman (that’s right, before he invented a grill and smiled a lot.) It is the story of Black Americans rediscovering their roots, their history, the truth about who they were and are. It’s the story of Boxing- the glitz, the promotions, the media hype, the money, the glamor. It’s the story of the Congo- of Belgian colonialism and its legacy, of rich dictators and the power they wield, of the people they rule over and the resilience those people display. It’s the story of music- James Brown, B.B. King, and other pioneers who represent the best music America has ever created, reminding us that the best we have to offer so often seems to be Black. It’s the story of individuals: their personas, their identities, their egos and psyches… and it’s the story of collectives: cultures split apart by slavery and greed, united again by common needs, goals, and dreams.

All of these stories culminate in When We Were Kings, a movie about Boxing, but also a movie where Boxing is a metaphor for everything else. It’s a character study- many character studies, actually- and it’s a political study, and it’s a cultural study, and it’s just a great, great yarn that turns out to be true. Mostly narrated, ironically, by two white guys- heavyweight writers Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, but also featuring commentary by Black icons from Spike Lee to Don King, When We Were Kings shows off the beauty and power of Black Culture from the front row, dropping you into the thick of it, blood and sweat and all. It took 22 years for director Leon Gast to make the film after he shot it, but time just made the story that much more sharp and essential.

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