When We Were Kings

Movie review by
Renee Schonfeld, Common Sense Media
When We Were Kings Movie Poster Image
Thrilling boxing docu covers race, politics; some profanity.
  • PG
  • 1997
  • 84 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Values promoted include courage, perseverance, integrity, living up to one's potential, and defiance in the face of abuse and prejudice. Underlying message is that people of color are deserving of respect, must fight for individual liberty, and must not acquiesce to racism and intolerance. Ali delivers some easy messages aimed at kids: "Live a clean life. Stay off of dope. Don't eat so much candy!"

Positive Role Models & Representations

Brash, loud, and fearless (as well as offensive to some in 1974), Muhammad Ali is also commanding, funny, spontaneous, and an iconic spokesperson for people of color. His African-American pride and his devotion to his religion (the Nation of Islam) spoke volumes to the world. In this film, he is the essence of the 1970s "Black is beautiful" sensibility, which terrified some and exalted others.

Violence

Extensive boxing footage: hard blows, knock-downs, a bloody eye injury, ferocious pummeling. Brief newsreel accounts of cruelty to Africans and African-Americans. A typhoid shot is administered on camera.

Sex

Sensual dance performances in revealing costumes; one brief glimpse of bare breasts.

Language

"Holy s--t," "damn," three uses of the "N" word.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that When We Were Kings is a documentary about the World Boxing Championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman that was held in the African country of Zaire in October 1974. In fast-paced, high-energy scenes, the film takes its viewers through the initial planning, the boxers' training regimens, a long delay due to an injury to Foreman's eye, and the championship bout itself, which has long been famously known as the "Rumble in the Jungle." In addition, the filmmakers have intercut interviews, newsreel footage, and excerpts from musical performances held in Zaire along with the boxing spectacle. As a result, the film is about much more than the sport itself. It touches upon the racial politics of the time, the political implications of the event, and the growing influence of Ali. Violent action includes extensive, hard-hitting boxing sequences and historical footage of African-American people under siege. In one musical number, young women are in skimpy clothing, and one of them briefly flashes bare breasts. There's a sprinkling of profanity, including "damn," "holy s--t," and three instances of the "N" word. Muhammad Ali became an iconic figure in late 20th-century America. His boxing prowess, personality, and commitment to the betterment of his peers, despite the challenges of Parkinson's disease, made him a worldwide hero with lasting influence. This film is apt testimony to the excitement he brought over nearly a half century. Mature teens and up.

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What's the story?

It's 1974. Muhammad Ali wants to regain the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion title in WHEN WE WERE KINGS. He's 32 years old -- still exuberant, talented, and once again bound for glory, after having been stripped of his early title when, in 1966, he refused to be inducted into the U.S. Armed Forces. The defending champion is George Foreman, 10 years younger and a mountain of a fighter -- strong and undefeated as a professional (40-0). When promoter Don King, looking for stardom himself, sets up an unlikely title bout in an unlikely setting, Zaire (formerly the Congo), with each fighter guaranteed $5 million, it promises to be the boxing event of the 20th century. It was, and decades later it has retained its once-in-a-lifetime status as the "Rumble in the Jungle." Director Leon Gast and his team follow the prep and training, the surrounding media frenzy, and the bout itself, while skillfully integrating historical footage/commentary, extensive on-camera interviews with boxing power-fans (i.e., Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, and Spike Lee), and footage from the concerts held in Zaire in tandem with the event (including music by African-American greats James Brown and B.B. King).

Is it any good?

This beautifully realized documentary integrates sports, racial politics, African-American musical performances, celebrity testimony, and the singular iconic personality of Muhammad Ali. Driven by his profound commitment to black pride and pursuing the values of his Muslim faith, Ali sees his comeback fight against the reigning world champion boxer George Foreman as a defining moment for all people of color. He fills the screen with his talent, his quick mind, and his larger-then-life magnetism. When We Were Kings took more than 20 years to reach theatrical screens due to legal disputes, but when it was finally released in 1996, it was universally acclaimed, winning many major awards, including the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Interestingly, director Leon Gast has stated that, had the film been released in a timely manner (mid-1970s), the emphasis almost certainly would have been different, and the 20-plus-year interval allowed for the perspective of Ali's growing influence and popularity. Entertaining, informative, and endlessly creative, this film is not just for boxing fans. A few uses of the "N" word and a brief glimpse of female breasts, along with extensive hard-hitting boxing sequences, make it best for teens and up.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the fact that When We Were Kings, like Muhammad Ali himself, is about more than the sport of boxing. How did the filmmakers use music, historical footage, and interviews to broaden the scope of the story they were telling?

  • Muhammad Ali has been described as the first African-American "hip-hop" or "rap" artist. He's also considered a poet (also an early "trash talker"). What evidence is there in this movie to back up those notions?

  • Do you know that Ali helped negotiate the release of hostages in Iraq in 1990? That he was a UN Messenger of Peace? That he lit the torch at the 1996 Olympic Games? That he worked hard to raise awareness of and funds for Parkinson's disease? Was named Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated magazine? Where would you go to find out more about Muhammad Ali?

  • How does Muhammad Ali demonstrate courage, integrity, and perseverance in When We Were Kings? Why are these important character strengths?

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