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Documentary Film: When We Were Kings (1996)

This film documents the historic 1974 heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman that took place in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Known as the “Rumble in the Jungle,” this controversial event took place during a tumultuous period in national and global history, was promoted by Don King, and billed as not only a boxing match but a soul music festival featuring artists such as James Brown, B.B. King, Celia Cruz, Hugh Masakela, and Miriam Makeba. The documentary, released over twenty years later, provides a window into this particular historical moment, shedding light on some of the key themes in Black popular culture that this course engages, including defining blackness, the multiplicity of black subjectivities, defining the African diaspora, the global circulation of black cultures, and representing the black body. For this paper, students explore three of these themes in relation to the film, and then identify and discuss a product of Black popular culture of their own choosing that contributes to our understanding of at least one of these themes. The objective here is to produce a critical analysis of When We Were Kings and use some other, perhaps more contemporary, cultural material to further this analysis.

In producing a critical analysis of a film or any text, there are a few things to keep in mind, all of which come down to being conscious of the distinction between an event and the telling of that event. This film is constructing a particular narrative of the “Rumble in the Jungle” through the use of narrators, interview clips, archival footage, a soundtrack and images. As you think about the film, ask yourself what particular story is the filmmaker trying to tell? How does the material selected to include in the documentary support this story? What are some of the strengths, shortcomings, and limitations of this particular rendering of the story? What do you take away from the film that is the result of your filtering it through your unique, personal lens that is informed by your own identities, interests, and experiences?

The Assignment


The following questions are designed to assist you in your analysis of the documentary, particularly in making connections between the film and the key themes in the course. Responses must demonstrate familiarity with the film and be 1-3 paragraphs in length.

· What are the important historical and political events and contexts (both national and global) highlighted in the film? Be sure to describe the scenes in the film in which these events and contexts are revealed. What details of these events can you identify through doing cursory online research about them?
· What is the relationship between Black popular culture, politics, activism, and social justice as depicted in this documentary? Are there any current athletes, entertainers, or artists who use their work and fame in order to promote social justice or a political platform? If yes, feel free to include links to their work and explain the message that they are attempting to disseminate.

· In her article, Susan Ryan states that the Ali-Foreman fight can be considered to be “a discourse on black identity” (p. 1). What is your interpretation of this statement? Are Ali and Foreman representing contrasting articulations of Blackness? Explain using concrete examples from the film and incorporating relevant course material covered thus far.

· Keeping in mind some of the ideas about gender and black masculinity that Riggs introduces in Black Is…Black Ain’t, would you say that the “discourse in black identity” is really a discourse in black male identity? What are the roles of Black women/female bodies and of Black men/male bodies in the documentary? How are each represented and what are the implications of these representations?

· Diaspora, hybridity, and the circulation of Black popular cultures are among the central concepts that we engage in this course. What are examples of interactions between Black people from different national contexts and exchanges of cultural material in this film? What, if anything, did you find compelling about this aspect of the film?
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