Date: Thu, 1 May 97 10:53:09 CDT
From: Jim Davis <email@example.com>
Subject: Review: 'When We Were Kings'
Culture under fire: When we were kings
By Curly Cohen
1 May 1997
Culture jumps barriers of geography and color. Millions of
Americans create with music, writing, film and video, graffiti,
painting, theatre and much more. We need it all, because culture
can link together and expand the growing battles for food,
housing, and jobs. In turn, these battles provide new audiences
and inspiration for artists. Use the "Culture Under Fire" column
to plug in, to express yourself. Write: Culture Under Fire, c/o
People's Tribune, P.O. Box 3524, Chicago, Illinois 60654 or e-mail
There probably never has been as quiet a new champion's party. The
boyish king of the ring came over to my motel. He ate ice cream,
drank milk, talked to football star Jimmy Brown and other friends
and some reporters. Cassius took a quick nap on my bed.
-- from "The Autobiography of Malcolm X"
No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger.
-- Credited to Muhammad Ali
To prevent the rise of a Black Messiah
-- J. Edgar Hoover's stated goal of the FBI counterinsurgency
Power is the ability to define a phenomenon and make it act in a
-- Huey P. Newton
Winner of the heavyweight championship of this year's Oscar for
best documentary (and rightfully so), "When We Were Kings," a film
by director Leon Gast, brings to life a 23-year-old snapshot of an
era about which you might really say "wasn't that a time?" or "the
whole world was active," an amazing and irresistible world-wide
movement for justice.
As we watch the film, we realize we're watching a series of
stories woven together by a singular event known as "the rumble in
Gast weaves together an always-incredible Muhammad Ali, his
political and spiritual homecoming to Africa, the title fight
between Ali and a then-young and murderously powerful puncher and
world heavyweight champ named George Foreman. The fight promoter
is a young, infectious and affable ex-convict named Don King
(before the Don King whose hair and principles took on mythic
proportions). A music festival to coincide with the fight features
James Brown (before he was crowned the King or Godfather of Soul),
B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, the Jazz Crusaders, and the Spinners;
two white writers, Norman Mailer and George Plimpton interpret the
events for the establishment back home. And there is Joseph Mobutu
(or Mobutu Sese Seko), the deadly military dictator of Zaire,
responsible for the CIA-assisted assassination of Patrice Lumumba,
because Lumumba helped signal the beginning of a 30-year movement
to rid the African continent of its European colonial oppressors
and exploiters. Mobutu put $10 million up for this fight and when
it was delayed for six weeks because of a cut on Foreman's eye, he
seized the passports of Ali and Foreman so they couldn't leave
Zaire. And if this isn't enough, the fight happened about two
months after the popularly demanded resignation of another
military dictator, King Richard Milhous Nixon of the Super
Imperial States, who left office dissed and disgraced.
But it is Ali -- the greatest -- the champ -- the people's champ
-- who we've come to see. We aren't disappointed. On the contrary,
we're enthralled -- energized. Twenty-three years after the fact,
we have the theater jubilantly ready to fight our way to the
justice we never quite seized 23 years ago. It is all Ali -- whose
simple, stinging truth defied a non-believing world that was so
sure that Foreman was going to win.
It was Ali who drew a line in America between the racists (whose
hair stood on end) and his stinging truth.
It's Ali -- who after his stunning upset of Sonny Liston in Miami
in 1964 met reporters the following day to define a bigger
"upset." The young and handsome boxer -- 1960 Olympic champion
Cassius Marcellus Clay -- put more than his title up -- he gave up
his future as a flag-waving puppet. Anything he wanted was his --
but he chose to reject it. He stood up like a man, raised his huge
fists and his even bigger heart and said simply: "My name is
Muhammad Ali, my religion is Islam (in contrast to a white God and
a racist Christianity)." And of course he did not do it alone. He
had an incredible and profound teacher named Malcolm X.
And it was just at that moment that he became a symbol. A symbol
of the salt, the sweaty "salt of the Earth." No, there wouldn't be
any picture of Ali with the president. But you can be sure that in
every village and holler or ghetto, his smiling and shining face
signifying our aspirations graced our walls and wallets. He would
hold two crowns -- as the people's champ and one as the champion
of the people.
He transformed the sports world into a political battlefield for
the rights of the people. In 1968 at the Olympics in Mexico City,
it was Tommy Smith and John Carlos who raised their black fists to
denounce apartheid, from America to South Africa, nodding their
acknowledgement to Ali. Of course, the hate machine didn't sit
idly by. Within four years, while the champ was defeating all
challengers, he was ordered to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, to
go and fight the Vietnamese people who were standing up and
resisting the system Muhammad Ali was fighting.
Ali refused induction into the U.S. military and was charged,
convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for claiming his
constitutional right to conscientiously object to the war.
His title was taken away. No state issued him a license to fight.
He made the connection between how America was using black and
poor troops in 'Nam to stop a liberation movement there while
suppressing the soldiers' liberation movement here in the United
Five years after his conviction, he wins his appeal. Does the hate
machine think he's too old to fight? Washed up? A has-been? Have
they underestimated the dynamic potential a human carries in his
heart? Did they underestimate the power of the mission that Ali
undertook? Did they not have a clue or could they just not hear
three billion people on Earth chanting: "Ali! Ali! Ali!"
In a more just world, Ali would have easily and officially served
as a good-and-just-will ambassador to the world. Don't miss this
movie, and don't miss the movement. And thank you, Muhammad Ali.
This article originated in the PEOPLE'S TRIBUNE (Online Edition),
Vol. 24 No. 5 / May, 1997; P.O. Box 3524, Chicago, IL
60654, firstname.lastname@example.org or WWW:
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