Blood Brothers: Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali charts the friendship between two of the towering figures of the twentieth century. Through breathless narration, personal reflections from family members, and commentary from diverse backgrounds, Marcus A. Clarke constructs a cultural tableau around the personal and political development of both Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.
This film will be of particular interest to those of us who grew up with the heavily redacted legacy of Ali. By the time he lit the cauldron at the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta, he was presented primarily with reference to his former moniker, “The Louisville Lip.” He was, simply, the Greatest, known as much for his pre-bout poetics as for his in-ring dominance. Ignored is Ali’s political engagement and often controversial involvement with the Nation of Islam. We’re familiar with his opposition to the war in Vietnam, but fewer viewers are likely familiar with his statements that those who oppose Elijah Muhammad – leader of the Nation of Islam from 1934-1975 – should be killed.
But I’m getting ahead of the film. Clarke carefully presents a background out of which the coming together of these two men is nothing other than destiny. Malcolm’s early life is lived in proximity, through his father, to the political activism of Marcus Garvey. Despite youthful errancy, which saw him spend ten years in prison, Malcolm had a voracious intellect. This passion for learning, combined with fierce charisma, led him to becoming a minister for the Nation of Islam. His mentor during this period, a figure looming over these early biographical sketches, is Elijah Muhammad.
Ali, born Cassius Clay in the Jim Crow South, experienced segregation in every aspect of his life, even after returning home with Olympic Gold. He had a Southern Baptist upbringing and was deeply affected by the death of Emmet Till. Clarke does well in filling in these biographical sketches with references to the wider culture. Ali’s own early awareness of the expression of Black oppression comes from a record he played by a Calypso singer known as The Charmer, better known as Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam since 1978. This is a further invocation of destiny. As Ali becomes involved in the Nation, Elijah Muhammad again looms over the film. While Malcolm was an early influence on his conversion, it was Elijah who would eventually grant Cassius Clay his Muslim name of Muhammad Ali.
Evident throughout Blood Brothers is the interplay between the private and the institutional. The strength of what Clarke presents comes in the understanding the film displays of the external pressures exerted on the private lives of its titular individuals. By all accounts, the friendship between Malcolm and Ali ran deep, as did the admiration of each towards Elijah. However, as the structural ties that bound these men together frayed, each fell back onto his apparent self-interest. This is where the tragedy of the film lies. Destiny, so often invoked by speakers throughout the film, arrives not by some transcendent intervention, but through the tactical manoeuvrings of political actors. Malcolm’s charisma and growing political independence would eventually drive him out of the Nation of Islam. His departure from the Nation forced Ali to essentially choose between his friendship with Malcolm and his allegiance to Elijah.
Alongside this cultural tableau is a robust emotional core. The predominant speakers in the film are Malcom’s and Ali’s children, alongside the recollections of Ali’s only brother. When, at the end of the film, the filmmaker asks whether Ali had any regrets, the emotional residence of this brief friendship is made apparent. These sections threaten to reduce the scope of the film to sentimental reflection, but Clarke’s skill in building a thorough, rigorous background allows the intimately personal to burst through the chaos of history. Ali and Malcolm struggled against the violence central to a system constructed around the exploitation of African Americans. While each employed his own methods, Blood Brothers shows how much these apparently disparate personalities had in common.
Blood Brothers: Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali is currently streaming on Netflix