Gast goes the distance with Ali documentary Director's fortitude finally pays off on 'When We Were Kings'

March 11, 1997|By Mike Littwin | Mike Littwin,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- If Leon Gast were a boxer instead of a filmmaker, you'd describe him as a guy with a lot of heart, which is sometimes a nice way of saying that he doesn't know when he has taken too many shots to the head.

As it turns out, Gast has taken many blows along the way, and not just the figurative kind, from a Liberian dictator or -- worse, much worse -- from Hollywood producers. There was also the thumping he took from a few of the Hell's Angels. But that's another story.

This is the story of a man who needed 22 years to produce a documentary on Muhammad Ali's gloriously incongruous rope-a-dope victory over George Foreman, the famous 1974 Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire.

It's a story of endurance, of rolling with the punches, of two decades of standing-eight counts. Mostly, though, it's a story of timing.

"People tell me it wouldn't mean the same if it had been produced 20 years ago," Gast says, nursing a cold last week in his Upper West Side apartment, talking about Ali and Africa and the past in a den/office, its walls plastered with Ali fight posters.

"Maybe they're right. I ask my friends, 'You got any heroes?' This guy is a hero. He's a real hero. If you look at the athletes of today, who can you point to and say, 'This guy is a hero'?"

The movie is called "When We Were Kings," which has been nominated for an Oscar as best documentary and opens in Baltimore on Friday. A boyish-looking 60, Gast finds himself suddenly a hot property after years of being hardly any kind of property at all.

For two decades, nobody wanted another Ali film. Now, it's apparently the right time. Because now, just maybe, we need an Ali film to remind us of who Ali really was.

You can see what's at work from almost the opening frame. It's all there. The poetry. The mock-serious taunting of Howard Cosell. The concerns about race in America. The near riot in Zaire when Ali, then 32, lands. The fans greeting him with "Ali, bomaye," meaning "Ali, kill him."

You can especially see it in the film's ever-playful Ali, the one with the wink behind every boast, the smile behind every insult, who announces to whatever part of the world that cares to listen: "If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait till I whip George Foreman's behind."

It's time because Ali, once the world's most famous man, is now the world's most famous man with a syndrome. And the image of Ali with Parkinson's has nearly obliterated the Ali we used to know.

It's a cruel irony, but then most of your great ironies are cruel. If Ali was not, as he often claimed, the greatest of all time -- and he may have been -- he was certainly the most controversial athlete of all time. A Black Muslim draft resister, Ali divided the country as no athlete could.

And yet today, Ali is our favorite grandfather. He's as dangerous as a Cal Ripken milk commercial. Nobody wants to fight him; people want to take care of him. Here's the irony: Now that Ali can barely talk, the man who could never stop talking finds himself beloved.

Ali at work

For the real Ali, the essential Ali, see "When We Were Kings."

It'll make you laugh. It'll make you cry. It'll make you wonder how, even in Hollywood, it took so long to get this film made.

It began as something else entirely. Leon Gast grew up as a fight fan in Jersey City, N.J., and as a music fan, but it was the music that brought him to the project. You probably remember the fight. What you may not recall was that this was to be more than a fight; it was to be a celebration of black America and black Africa. And part of the celebration was a three-day music festival, billed as the black Woodstock.

Gast saw the festival as the documentary's centerpiece -- featuring the music of B. B. King, James Brown and Miriam Makeba -- with the fight as subtext. Gast had made a documentary on Latin music. And he was working on another on the Hell's Angels, whose idea of artistic control was that they beat up the artist if they disagreed with him. Gast was thumped twice before making what he describes as a "training film" for Hell's Angels.

This impressed Don King, who made his career while promoting this fight and who knew something about thumping and getting thumped. He finally hired Gast, who is white, but told him half his 60-person crew had to be black.

And soon Gast was off to Deer Park, Pa., where Ali trained and where he found in Ali the subject of his dreams.

"He was the perfect subject," Gast says. "He was never too tired to talk, and whenever he saw a camera, he just wanted to perform. When we finally got to Africa, he'd say things like, 'If you guys want a beautiful scene, I run every morning by the river. Be there at 5: 30 in the morning and when I come around the bend '

"I didn't know what footage I was going to use in this film, but I knew I had very intimate stuff that I was going to use somehow."

It wasn't all easy

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