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Sender: o-imap@webmap.missouri.edu
Date: Thu, 1 May 97 10:53:09 CDT
From: Jim Davis <jdav@mcs.com>
Subject: Review: 'When We Were Kings'
Organization: ?
Article: 10127

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 cultfire@noc.org.

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 "Cointelpro" program

Power is the ability to define a phenomenon and make it act in a desired manner.
-- 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 the jungle."

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 States.

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, pt@noc.org or WWW:


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