Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali

September 10th, 2021




I knew nothing about Malcolm X until I was educated by the masterpiece filmmaking of Spike Lee. As for the other guy, I knew a lot about the athletic side and the personality of Muhammad Ali, especially because my college thesis was about the legendary boxer, and it’s hard to find many people who haven’t heard of one of, if not, the greatest fighters of all time. But it wasn’t until now where I learned about a more personal side to Malcolm X & Ali, especially the friendship, which began as close as brothers and morphed into a fractured relationship. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention enough to Michael Mann’s Ali, or maybe I saw the cordial side of the friendship portrayed in Regina King’s One Night in Miami, but Blood Brothers is a documentary that reveals both the good and the bad, the private things that can dwindle a friendship down between two American giants. Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali, is a documentary that does exactly what it sets out to do, revealing the history behind this historic friendship, their connection with the Nation of Islam, the high points of their bond, the low-point where their beliefs split them apart, and the impact that their lives have made on the world today.

The first half of Marcus A. Clarke’s documentary covers the meat and potatoes of these two historical figures. X is a rising voice for the Nation of Islam, a right hand man for the leader Elijah Muhammad, and an inspirational messenger fighting back against the way Black people are treated in America. Muhammad Ali is the rising star of boxing. Still under the name of Cassius Clay, a gold medal winner, and on the cusp of his heavyweight champion status. The two figures merge in Miami, with the Sonny Liston/Ali fight as a seminal moment, where the Nation of Islam has begun to introduce their teachings to Ali, and with the title on the line, Malcolm X and Ali pray together in the locker room, just before Ali would “shock the world”. From that point on these men had a bond, a connection that one would never think of being broken, Clay becoming Ali, the two men sharing meals and taking photos with family, but as life often can be, the complexities of religion, and the approach to the tumultuous times of the 1960’s, a wedge was placed between two men that seemed lock-step with one another.

For most documentaries there is a matter of the approach taken by the director and Clarke uses past footage, news reports, interviews, and research to keep the details straight. He also blends in the talking heads of various people connected to both Ali and X, including Ali’s brother, two of his daughters, X’s daughters, and other various scholars such as Cornel West to shed light on the history of these men. It amounts to a full-throated, highly detailed inspection, which also includes differing viewpoints of how these two men handled the situations of the times from JFK’s assassination, the Vietnam war, and the death threats the Nation of Islam would put on Malcolm’s head. Where MLK/FBI was highly detailed with documents and facts, Blood Brothers combines the facts with the views of others. That is an important distinction, because when the opinions of Ali and X come into focus it’s often shocking to see how no side views either men as saints, but they do view them as individuals that stuck to their beliefs, even if that meant losing it all.

Watching Blood Brothers made me want to go back and watch various films that depicted the lives of these two men, especially Spike Lee’s Malcolm X– arguably Denzel Washington’s greatest performance- because Blood Brothers highlights points I felt ignorant about, from X’s comments about Kennedy’s death, that “chickens had come home to roost” or how Ali had turned his back on X even when his life was being threatened. It’s difficult not to see splatters of blood on the hands of Ali or the Nation of Islam as they stood back as X’s house was bombed, and eventually murdered in cold blood. By far the most shocking and saddest revelation is when Ali’s family members mention the regret that the boxing champ felt when the religion they had bonded over so powerfully together, had torn them apart at the seams.

To describe a documentary like Blood Brothers in a word it would be: solid. I don’t have quarrels or qualms with anything that Clarke reveals, piecing together a well constructed dissection of this friendship. If there’s any problems it’s just that nothing struck me as shocking or awe inspiring, just strong documentary filmmaking. At the end,you can add it to the list of many great documentaries about these men, many that I believe everyone should seek out, not just because the filmmaking is strong, but because I can’t recommend it enough to learn about the lives of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. They were both major voices in the civil rights movements and two heroes that I find new respects the more I learn of them. They were true complexities of humanity, both flawed, flawless, and differing views of what it means to be Black and have a voice in America. By the end the final true revelation of Blood Brothers is that Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali will always be connected and that brotherhood can never be broken.


Written by: Leo Brady

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