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When We Were Kings (1996)

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A documentary of the 1974 heavyweight championship bout in Zaire, "The Rumble in the Jungle," between champion George Foreman and underdog challenger Muhammad Ali.


Won 1 Oscar. Another 11 wins & 5 nominations. See more awards »



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Complete credited cast:
Mobutu Sese Seko ...
Himself (President of Zaire)
Himself - Writer
Himself - Writer
Thomas Hauser ...
Himself - Artist (as Malik Bowens)
Lloyd Price ...
Himself - Concert Promoter
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Drew Bundini Brown ...
Himself - Ali's Ass't Trainer (as Drew 'Bundini' Brown)


It's 1974, Muhammad Ali is 32 and thought by many to be past his prime. George Foreman is ten years younger and the Heavyweight champion of the world. Promoter Don King wants to make a name for himself and offers both fighters five million dollars apiece to fight one another, and when they accept, King has only to come up with the money. He finds a backer in Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator of Zaire and the "Rumble in the Jungle" is set. A musical festival, featuring the America's top black performers, like James Brown and B.B. King, is also planned. Written by Gary Dickerson <slug@mail.utexas.edu>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


The untold story of the Rumble in the Jungle


Documentary | Sport

Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)

Rated PG for images of violence, brief nudity and some language | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:





Release Date:

14 February 1997 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Amikor királyok voltunk - Muhammad Ali  »


Box Office

Gross USA:

$2,666,118, 8 June 1997
See more on IMDbPro »

Company Credits

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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:


Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
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Did You Know?


When the film won the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary, George Foreman and Muhammad Ali came to the stage with the filmmakers to show they had made peace. Foreman helped Ali, stricken with Parkinson's Disease, climb the steps to the stage. See more »


Muhammad Ali: 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. That's when little Cassius Clay from Louisville, Kentucky, came up to stop Sonny Liston. The man who annihilated Floyd Patterson twice. HE WAS GONNA KILL ME! But he hit harder than George. His reach is longer than George's. He's a better boxer than George. And I'm better now than I was when you saw that 22-years old undeveloped kid running from Sonny Liston. I'm...
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Referenced in Siskel & Ebert: Men in Black/Wild America/Out to Sea (1997) See more »


In a Cold Sweat
Written by James Brown and Pee Wee Ellis (as Alfred James Ellis)
Dynatone Publishing Co. (BMI)
Admin. By Unichappell Music, Inc. (BMI)
Performed by James Brown
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User Reviews

The Pride of the Difference ...
13 June 2012 | by See all my reviews

While watching "When We Were Kings", I was distracted by many "what if" questions: "what if Foreman had won that match in Zaire?" "What if Ali had lost?" "What if it was a flop?" etc. Cynically, I assumed that had Ali lost, the documentary wouldn't have been made, but then I remembered that it waited 22 years to be made, and receive the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1997. In other words, it wasn't supposed to 'make a film'; it was a legend from the very start.

And "Rumble in the Jungle" is the nostalgic celebration of the most legendary episode of Boxing History, through a recollection of images and stories from those who witnessed the event. It's a treasure in terms of archive footage, musical sequences, and extraordinary shots of Ali haranguing his African fans and shining everyone with his unique charisma or Don King discussing the black condition with James Brown. The match is almost secondary while the film is more of a magnificent tribute to the enormous contribution of African American people in sport and entertainment. Some would think that the genius of people is better measured on fields such as science, medicine, physics, literature or politics, but in these times, sport and music was the most likely medium where African American people could express their voice.

And sport is probably the noblest expression of Humanity's true spirit: self-accomplishment, victory and respect. While science and literature cruelly depend on the level of education one has received, sport is universal; it's no-money learning: anyone can develop physical abilities with his own will. In a world full of segregation, sport offers the less segregationist environment. While intelligence can be used to disguise ignorance, strength cannot disguise weakness, the strongest is the strongest. Boxing is probably the most straight-forward incarnation of the true essence of sport, and on that discipline, Muhammad Ali was the greatest, a sort of semi-God like figure who had to prove his physical strength, before it transcended the limits of the ring, even at the risk of becoming an unpopular figure, an outcast … but sometimes, it's this very status that paves the way to the legend.

One has to remember how truly unpopular Ali became when he refused to fight in Vietnam. As recalls Spike Lee, interviewed in the documentary, it's not just the refusal but the way it was stated: "No Vietcong ever called me a N-word". Ali shouted what every member of his community was secretly thinking, he had the guts to refuse to be a government's puppet, he lost his Heavyweight Champion title and couldn't fight for several years, but what it cost him in sports, elevated him above all the other athletes: more than a spokesperson, he became a living icon, a myth and a model. Basically, his refusal taught people one thing: that one can't ask for respect if he doesn't respect himself. And the man who 'shook up the world' by defeating Sonny Liston had too much self-esteem to fight against people he's got nothing against just because he's told to do so. Respect starts with self-respect and even school can't teach you to respect yourself.

This is why the documentary might be guilty of a certain bias toward Ali, but it doesn't denigrate Foreman either. He is the 'quiet yet invulnerable' force, a Fighting Machine that knocked out and dethroned Joe Frazier after a technical knock-out, but his lack of flamboyance and eccentricity allowed Ali to conquer the hearts of all the Zairian people. Basically, "Rumble in the Jungle" could have been subtitled the "Ali show". The film isn't pro-Ali or anti-Foreman, it even manages to draw a sort of retrospectively sympathetic portrait of 'Big George' who just couldn't outsize Ali, popularity-wise. An unfortunate irony is that even as a darker person, Foreman incarnated the 'White man' for the people, by arriving at the airport with a blonde shepherd, symbol of the previous Belgian colon. Misunderstood, Foreman also misunderstood the public, and the whole fight's symbolism, he showed as an African American man, while Ali was exalting the pride of the difference, this pride that started when he refused to assign.

And this is exactly this pride of the difference that the film conveys through Ali's exuberant personality, even the title works like a slogan reminding that there was a time where Africa was the mother of humanity, when there was a pride to be Black, and people like Ali revived that pride. The film powerfully encapsulates the spirit within the black people in America or Africa, this 'Booma ye!' spirit ,where it was not about wanting to be 'assimilated', but to be 'respected'. Difference, not assimilation … and never had the Black pride been as authentic, as sincere, as expressed by Muhammad Ali, an equal of Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X and ironically to Patrice Lumumba who was ordered to be killed by the very President of Zaire, Mobutu himself. "When We Were Kings" provides an important slice of African life under dictatorship, proving that the people still had inner demons to exorcise, undermining the path to liberty.

Nothing positive can be dictated by terror and beyond the whole show, orchestrated by Don King, Ali and Foreman were not there to express an antagonism, but to play a game, it was a performance. And the film, although trying sometimes to convey a false sense of suspense by depicting Ali as a challenger who had almost no chance to win -a theory contradicted by most boxing experts- the legend preceded the match. How about the victory then? Well, I guess my "what if" questions were unthinkable in Ali's mind. It's as if, as a Muslim, he believed that some things were like written by God (or Allah) himself wanted to make reality even more appealing as fiction.

Indeed, while "When We Were Kings" is a documentary and a damn good one, I felt it as emotionally gripping as a fiction.

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