This article was first published in the March, 1997 issue of the COMMUNITY JOURNAL newspaper.
It’s being reprinted here in tribute to the fighting spirit of an American Black Muslim whose voyage made ours possible.
Rest in peace, Muhammad Ali.
On February 11, 1997, the documentary, “When We Were Kings,”opened to tremendous fanfare at Radio Music Hall.
However the real film story, why you’re actually seeing just a few vintage clips, and why it’s taken so long to complete, hasn’t been told.
We are eyewitnesses to this event, but the real credit for organizing it, prominent people who were key players,—aren’t given their due in this film.
For example, legendary singer/songwriter/producer LLoyd Price, his assistant, Nate Adams, and Rudy Lucas are the ones who put this historic event together. They engaged their energies more for the spiritual commitment than any other form of public recognition.Why weren’t they the main source of the interview? Why the very brief shot of Price?
The Zaire’74 experience was shared by many. We are just two eyewitnesses to that experience. Pat Kelly stayed the entire six weeks, writing a journal, working with the film crew, and as a college sophomore she’d previously visited Kinshasa.
On this her third visit to Africa, she began working with the film crew; onstage as deejay between sets during the FESTAC’74 performances: as a French translator for the crew, and aspiring photographer who traveled with the team into the interior to shoot a traditional wedding.
While there Pat interviewed Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Cassius Clay, Sr., and many others before returning to Kinshasa where she remained, and photographed the climax of Ali’s victory.
Ozzie Brown* is a filmmaker who along with St. Claire Bourne*, were the two Black unit managers of the film crew which included six cameramen, assistant cameramen, and sound technicians; among them, Roderick Young, Richard Wells, Karma Stanley, Gary Brown, and Joseph Calloway.
Upon viewing Leon Gast’s version of the Zaire’74 experience, it is obvious to anyone who participated that his effort at a feature documentary leaves a lot to be desired.
The objective by the organizers of the fight, and festival was to produce a full length feature film which would include not only the fight, between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, but the performances, and interaction of the artists, and the citizens of Zaire.
Much of what is NOT seen in the film include performances by the Jazz Crusaders, the Fania All Stars, Celia Cruz, Ray Barreto, a moving speech by Felipe Luciano; the Pointer Sisters, Sister Sledge as well as Big Black, Bill Withers, Hugh Masekela, and local groups such as the Red Devils, and Sosliso. So much was happening!
Indeed this was a very rich experience, and it represented a pilgrimage by Blacks and Latinos seeing their link from the same roots back to the Motherland of Africa where they embraced the soil, the people, used the music, —the drum in particular, to open channels to our ancestry.
Why weren’t they interviewed?
It should be noted that in Mr. Gast’s attempt to capture the events, not only did he leave a huge void, but he also manipulated the history by juxtaposing selected images from over 400,000 feet of film shot, with archival footage from previous Ali fights. So instead we see studio interviews with Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Spike Lee, etc., whose commentary was used to hold much of the footage together.
When one reflects on the consument performance of Miriam Makeba as was eyewitnessed by us, in contrast to how her image was manipulated to underscore the notion of an oracle curse on Foreman or prediction, with the repeated image of his eye and her voice overlapping, one cannot help to feel a certain violation of the spirit.
In film making technique there is a powerful process called the “synthesis of the cut”—which means one can take two totally unrelated images, and by splicing them together in an editing room, you can make a statement that creates a totally different meaning, thereby taking each original image out of context with itself.
That was the case of how Miriam Makeba‘s production was minimized, and used to underscore the words of the oracle.
This is just one example that prevailed throughout this film.
In putting together the cast to make the film it would seem as if Spike Lee’s commentary was manipulated also, –much in the same fashion to achieve a certain “credibility”(?), since Spike wasn’t there.
In addition, as we read the dedication at the end of the film credits worked the spirits of Elijah Muhammad, and Malcolm X. It seems to have been a very clever pirating of these ancestors to attract the African-American population to fill the coffers of the box office, and this is also another contrast form of neo-20th century colonialism, and exploitation.
Had Malcolm X, and Elijah Muhammad been around today, they wouldn’t lend themselves to this “co-opting of the event”—What gives them the right to use or evoke the spirits of these leaders on screen as a “get over” tactic?
As a piece we know these tricks earned Gast an Oscar nomination for a featured documentary.
Fact is he has only snippets of the real movie. Now that “When We Were Kings” is out, the truth is about to be told. There’s a whole lot more to view.
St. Claire Bourne, Roderick Young, Richard Wells, Gary Brown, Karma Stanley, Joseph Calloway were people we all worked with, and without their contributions, no film, no matter how much slicing, and piecing together, would exist.
Perhaps one important fact to remember is that we’re talking about the time when Muhammad Ali wasn’t popular with white America, but Black, African, and people all over the world loved him then, as well as now.
In the case of the “Greatest,” Muhammad Ali, no amount of time can erase this historic event, October 30th, 1974.
*St. Claire Bourne is deceased.