'Blood Brothers' Director on Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali's 'Powerful' Friendship and Fallout

Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali on Netflix takes an intimate look at the friendship and fallout between Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. Both men are known for their pivotal roles in the Civil Rights Movement, which took place between 1954–1968.

Ali was an international sensation as the "world's greatest" boxer who, like Malcolm, had strong views on racism in America and the Black experience, which continued after Malcolm was assassinated on February 21, 1965. Ali would go on to be an outspoken critic of racial inequality and an opponent of the Vietnam War. Sadly, what is not so well known is their close friendship and unfortunate fallout, something that Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali explores in great detail.

Speaking to Newsweek, Blood Brothers director Marcus A. Clarke said: "It's kind of a shame that we don't know more about this friendship and this relationship, and what it was really about.

"Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali are two people who've been inspirational figures to me and I've been really familiar with their history, kind of all throughout my upbringing and growing up. So, to be able to present this story as an authentic story that's really intimate, that provides new insight on this relationship and what it was really about, is something that is incredibly compelling for me."

Both men were active at the height of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. Malcolm X began in the Nation of Islam and served as a mentor figure to Ali, as depicted in Blood Brothers. Malcolm and Ali first crossed paths in 1962, through the Nation of Islam and their respect for its leader, Elijah Muhammad. At the time, Ali was known as Cassius Clay, later changing his name to Muhammad Ali in 1964, which means "beloved of God."

Clarke also believes their friendship and individual careers ultimately changed the "trajectory of history".

He shared: "[Blood Brothers] is really about what they saw in each other, what Malcolm X saw in Cassius Clay at the time (later Muhammad Ali), and what Muhammad Ali saw in Malcolm X, and really, this beautiful relationship takes place in, you know, a potent three-year window of time. It's really 1962 to 1965.

"It's just a really powerful, potent relationship based on faith, based on the philosophy of what they were learning through the Nation of Islam at that time, and really about the impact that both men had on each other, and how this relationship really changed the trajectory of both of their lives and really changed the trajectory of history as well."

Blood Brothers on Netflix traces the origins of their friendship, their similarities and their differences, through archival footage and intimate interviews with those who knew Malcolm and Ali best, including Malcolm's daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, and Ali's younger brother Rahman. The documentary film is also an adaptation of Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith's book Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. Both men appear in the documentary, guiding audiences through the intimate true story.

Clarke shared with Newsweek that Malcolm and Ali both admired and respected each other, right until the end. It is well known Ali regretted how he treated Malcolm. "Turning my back on Malcolm," wrote Ali in his 2004 autobiography The Soul of a Butterfly, "was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life. I wish I'd been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. But he was killed before I got the chance."

In particular, Blood Brothers highlights the close "student-teacher" relationship both men had. Clarke explained: "When you when you see the film, it's really like a student-teacher relationship. In many ways, Malcolm X was a mentor to Cassius Clay, he kind of helped him navigate the world in the 60s, at a time when it was really challenging for African Americans.

"Malcolm X, being about 17 years older than Cassius Clay, he had a little bit more insight into the world, more wisdom on kind of how things work, and he also obviously had a lot more insight on the Nation of Islam and that philosophy, which was basically telling African Americans that they are 'untapped potential', that they are 'divine' if you will, and basically are undoing the messages of like white oppression and undoing the negative imagery and the negative messages of inferiority and being less than and really saying, 'you have this potential, and if you know your history, you have the potential to achieve great things'."

He continued: "Malcolm X really bestowed this wisdom on Cassius Clay and really helped him to kind of form his voice. And that's something that we know, how Muhammad Ali conducted himself kind of later in his life, a lot of that was modelled after his relationship with Malcolm X."

Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali
Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali Netflix

Sadly, Malcolm and Ali's friendship broke down in 1964, after Malcolm severed ties with the Nation of Islam's leader. He publicly announced his break from the Nation of Islam on March 8, 1964, citing the political direction of the organization as the reason. He hoped Ali would follow but instead, Ali sided with the Nation of Islam.

As seen in Blood Brothers, in the spring of 1964, they famously accidentally met outside a hotel in Ghana. As Malcolm greeted his former friend, Ali said: "You left the Honorable Elijah Muhammad – that was the wrong thing to do, Brother Malcolm." Malcolm would go on to found the Organization of Afro-American Unity which campaigned in favor of Black identity.

Blood Brothers delves deep into their division whilst also raising the question of whether Malcolm's interest in Ali was self-serving to an extent. If he had Ali on his side, he was no longer a threat to the Nation of Islam who had effectively disowned him.

Despite their differences, Clarke believes there is a lot to be learned from their fallout and their place in history.

He reflected: "One of the most important questions that I think comes from the film is 'had Malcolm X not been assassinated at 39 years of age how would things be different? How would the Black Lives Matter movement be different? How would the protests and the things we're seeing today be different?' because at that time, what he was working on specifically was these issues. Issues of police brutality of discrimination, and how to get justice - even going as far as trying to bring the United States in front of the UN, to get some kind of movement and some kind of action on the issues that we're still dealing with today, 55 plus years later.

"That's a really important kind of idea when you watch the film, because he was so young when he passed away. But then he had this profound impact or Cassius Clay who becomes Muhammad Ali and we know Muhammad Ali, you know, he becomes the greatest. And so I don't think that that the impact of Malcolm X shouldn't be overlooked, that he had on Muhammad Ali and the man that he eventually becomes."

Blood Mothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali is streaming on Netflix now.

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