There have been many stirring images of Muhammad Ali in the news over the last week: We've seen his wild-eyed taunt over the fallen Sonny Liston during the 1964 upset that launched Ali to the world heavyweight title. We've seen beautiful photos of the champ with the Beatles, with President Obama, watching Rocky II with Roger Ebert, touching the fancy hairdo of a visibly awed Prince.
But you don't really get the guy until you see him in action, both inside the ring and out. So kudos to Film Forum for booking (on short notice) two essential documentaries that capture a large measure of the man, especially his proto-rapping political side. Starting this Friday and playing through Tuesday 14, Bill Siegel's The Trials of Muhammad Ali is a terrific primer on Ali's activism: his rejection of the Vietnam draft, his complicated dance with the Nation of Islam, his humanitarian global outreach.
Then the mighty Oscar-winning When We Were Kings plays Wednesday 15 and Thursday 16. If you haven't seen this one—indisputably the best boxing documentary of all time—you've got a show to attend. Blessed with total access to what would be a seismic, symbolic event, director Leon Gast headed to Zaire, Africa, to capture 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle,” the apotheosis of Muhammad Ali’s legend.
Among the many subjects straying in front of Gast’s perceptive camera are wire-haired promoter Don King, sports writers Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, soul godfather James Brown (on fire in performance) and pitiless dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, grabbing the world’s attention. But all eyes ultimately turn to the fleet-tongued Ali, charming in his training routine and fierce against George Foreman via the celebrated “rope-a-dope.” Ali’s connection with crowds of cheering Zaireans became a spiritual bond, one that turned him into a global icon of pride and power.
Both movies will play Film Forum (209 W Houston St) at the same daily showtimes: 12:30, 2:40, 4:50, 7 and 9:15pm.