Someone called him the Elvis of sport because he was a crossover pioneer, sexy and gorgeous, who forced the public to rethink its view of his form of entertainment. But there was more to Muhammad Ali than his amazing cunning in the ring; more than his reputation as the most charming showboater in boxing history, with an impish rhyming wit that had the power of both butterfly and bee. As Spike Lee says of Ali in the enthralling new documentary When We Were Kings, "He fused politics and sport."
Ali's conversion to the Black Muslims tested white America's fondness for him. His refusal to serve in the Army made him the Vietnam War's most famous conscientious objector and deprived him of work for three years at the peak of his craft. Then Ali returned to lose the heavyweight belt to Joe Frazier.
Leon Gast's documentary details the next step in Ali's career: Act III of a great and poignant pageant. This was the Rumble in the Jungle, the 1974 fight with George Foreman in Zaire. That country's dictator, Mobutu Sose Seko, had laid out $10 million of his country's puny resources to play host to the fight and a festival of African and Afro-American music. "We left Africa in shackles and fetters and chains," said promoter Don King in a spume of eloquence. "We are coming back in an aura of splendor and scintillating glory. The champions are here!"
Also there was Gast, hired to make the movie by a firm called International Film & Records. After the fight he could not reach IFR for postproduction funds. Later he learned that the company's sole shareholder was Stephen Talbot, Finance Minister of Liberia. Talbot had died in a plane crash; his associate was executed in a Liberian coup, as Gast learned when he saw a TIME photo of the man standing before a firing squad.
Gast eventually won rights to the 400 hours of footage, but could find no investors until, in 1986, David Sonenberg, a manager of rock talent, volunteered. After transferring the deteriorating film stock, Gast and filmmaker Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman) completed the film in 1994, hoping to promote it with a sound track CD comprising music from the festival stars (James Brown, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba) and new groups like the Fugees, who laid down a rap track over Ali's incantatory doggerel. But no one wanted to distribute the movie--until it won the documentary prize at last year's Sundance festival. The picture opens this week, 22 years late, but just in time for an expected Oscar nomination.
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." Some reporters, like George Plimpton, suspected that Ali's smiles camouflaged his fear of the big, punishing champ.
Foreman is largely absent from the film, partly because in 1974 he was not very good copy; next to Ali he sounded sluggish and luggish. But in his looming silence, Foreman was supernally intimidating--the shadow of death, everyone said, in what would surely be Ali's last, humiliating battle. Before the fight, "Ali's dressing room was like a morgue," says Norman Mailer, who as always is a top cornerman of the intellect, a brilliant intuiter of other men's fear and resolve.