When We Were Kings – The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)

I was elated when The Criterion Collection announced When We Were Kings as an upcoming entry, complete with a brand-new restoration and extras to go with it. It is one of my favorite documentaries, as it does a great job tracking a meaningful event in sports history. The film puts some of what made Muhammad Ali the man that he was on display and adds in plenty of interviews from those who knew him and had thoughts on his legacy. There’s a lot to take in, and even with so many documentaries that have since covered the legendary heavyweight champion, this 87-minute documentary is both incredibly entertaining and full of insight.


When We Were King’s main focus is on the famous “Rumble in the Jungle,” a championship boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. The fight was held in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) back in 1974. As the doc begins, we see the buildup to fight, with Ali being his big, bold self, talking about Africans and African Americans. As it continues, we begin to learn what led to this matchup, as well as watch interviews with a variety of filmmakers and artists, including Spike Lee, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, and others.

Winner of the Best Documentary Oscar in 1996, director Leon Gast spent over two decades working on financing and editing his film, before it was finally released to the public. When We Were Kings contains a wealth of footage from around the time of the match, the match itself, the previously mentioned interviews, and even the soul music festival that accompanied the fight (more on that when reading about the extras).

Through all of this, like him or not, Ali was a force to be reckoned with on all accounts. He had a larger than life personality, hilarious ways at getting at his opponents, and a strong will and determination to act in a manner that suited his philosophies. All of that can be seen in this film, and concerning the fight, that did nothing to help the much more reserved Foreman, Ali’s well-established opponent.

The other notable element is looking at how Gast decided to assemble this footage. As with any documentary, When We Were Kings takes a side favoring Ali. There are also various political messages to look at, given the time in which this match was set. However, it’s also easy to see how this ‘Rumble’ was a massive commercial event made partially possible by fight promoter Don King, who made a ton of money on what was taking place. Hearing the various stories provides a lot of details that are both spoken aloud as well as inferred. It creates a time capsule effect, given how people speak of what took place, what we see, and the tone of it all.

Everything seen in this doc is awe-inspiring, as it puts on display one of the most charismatic athletes of all time, doing a lot of what he does best. Hearing from a diverse group of individuals about the man, as well as getting a great look at Ali’s trip to Africa, provides a lot of great perspective on everything taking place. Gast’s filmmaking abilities know exactly what to cut into, making it a doc that never gets old, and can easily present why it is that Ali was/is the “Greatest of All Time.”


Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Details: When We Were Kings features a new digital transfer created in 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from a 35mm interpositive and restored at Deluxe in Hollywood.

Clarity/Detail: Given the number of different sources relied upon to put together this documentary, there’s an impressively consistent look for this presentation as a whole. I can’t imagine the technical difficulties involved in allowing archive footage and interview footage to exist together in a fairly seamless manner, but it all has a clear balance to deliver on a video transfer that contains the rawness of every scene, with the sheen of a well-made film.

Depth: A proper handle on spacing keeps the image from ever feeling flat. The boxing match footage, in particular, shows off a great level of character spacing in moments that truly matter.

Black Levels: The black levels are great. Given the archival footage in use, there’s a lot to take in when it comes to the work shadows and nighttime sequences do for a film such as this.

Color Reproduction: So many elaborate costumes, locations, and more are found in a film that relies on Africa as a major location. So, yes, the colors stand out brilliantly. It speaks a lot to a film where it’s not about crafting the production design but putting in on display effectively.

Flesh Tones: The detail level seen in the actual characters is impressive,

Noise/Artifacts: With so much work to deliver a strong new transfer of this film, there is little to complain about. There is a consistent level of grain that is to be expected, but this film is basically spotless, as all the dirt, damage, stains, etc. has been cleaned up.



Audio Format(s): English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0

Subtitles: English SDH

Details: The 5.0 surround soundtrack was remastered from the 35 mm six-track full-coat magnetic tapes using Avid’s Pro Tools and iZotope RX.

Dynamics: Thanks to the effort put forward in remastering this audio track, all imperfections have been removed, resulting in a clean listen that is balanced and effective in conveying the auditory mood of the events taking place, most noticeably with the concert footage.

Low-Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: There is an accomplished sense of surround thanks to the lively nature of the film and the work to have it all come through on this Blu-ray.

Dialogue Reproduction: You get to hear all of Ali.



When We Were Kings arrives on Blu-ray with a small set of supplements concerning the actual film but gets an automatic boost thanks to the inclusion of the documentary Soul Power.

Features Include:

  • Leon Gast (HD, 5:00) – An archival interview from 1997, where Gast goes over the work he did to put together this documentary, and the interactions he’s had with Ali and Foreman.
  • David Sonenberg (HD, 17:00) – A new interview with producer David Sonenberg, who goes over his experience working with Gast and the documentary.
  • Soul Power (HD, 1:33:00) – Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte’s documentary, covering the soul music festival that occurred concurrently with the Rumble in the Jungle. It features performances from James Brown and B.B. King, among others, and provides a different perspective on what was taking place.
  • Trailer (HD, 2:00)
  • PLUS – An essay by critic Kelefa Sanneh



It’s always a thrill to see one of your favorites given such a high-quality upgrade. When We Were Kings is a terrific documentary that’s as entertaining as it is fascinating. I got plenty of joy from giving it a look again, let alone appreciating the terrific presentation. Adding on the Soul Power documentary is another terrific addition, further enhancing the value of this package. If you want one of the greatest boxing films of all time, here it is.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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