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When Malcolm Met Ali

A new Netflix documentary, Blood Brothers, offers a moving look at the friendship between Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, two of the 20th century's most dynamic figures. When black-and-white photos of the pair grace the screen, it practically vibrates with energy.

The relationship between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X is explored in the new Netflix documentary Blood Brothers. (Netflix)

It’s Muhammad Ali Documentary Season, it seems, with Ken Burns’s four-part series on the legendary champion playing on PBS, and Marcus C. Clarke’s Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali currently available on Netflix.

Clarke’s documentary isn’t treading entirely new ground — we’ve had a number of documentaries and fictionalized films dealing at least briefly with aspects of the men’s friendship, most recently Regina King’s film One Night in Miami — but the intensity of the focus on the fraught three-year relationship, along with the commentary by Cornel West, Ali’s younger brother Rahman, the daughters of Ali and Malcolm X, and many others, make this film compelling.

And frankly, depressing. There’s a tragic irony at the film’s center that’s haunting long after you’ve seen it dramatically presented in the documentary. The friendship of Malcolm X and the dazzling young prizefighter, then known by his birth name Cassius Clay, fresh from his gold-medal Olympic triumph in Rome but already embittered by his return to Jim Crow America, is centered on Malcolm X encouraging Clay in his interest in the Nation of Islam.

In the early 1960s, this growing organization, which stood outside the major white supremacist American institutions, including the highly segregated Christian church, offered young black men a way to see themselves as empowered, autonomous, and connected to an international brotherhood. It had been the site of Malcolm X’s transformation from Malcolm Little, the traumatized and alienated son of Reverend Earl Little, who was lynched for being an influential supporter of black nationalist and Pan-Africanist leader Marcus Garvey.

Through his remarkable skills as an orator, Malcolm X had risen quickly to a position of power second only to “the messenger,” Elijah Muhammad. But those same skills created controversy within the organization and came to be seen as a threat. Even as Malcolm X drew Cassius Clay into the Nation of Islam, he himself was being forced out.

The newly named Muhammad Ali was compelled to choose between the unquestioned authority of Elijah Muhammad among followers, and his friend Malcolm X. Malcolm was branded a religious “hypocrite,” a charge so serious it qualified among faithful followers as a death sentence. Ali chose “the messenger” and denounced Malcolm X.

Only years later, long after the assassination of Malcolm X and the more recent death of Elijah Muhammad, did Ali visit Mecca and discover what his daughter termed “the true Islam.” He was belatedly following in the footsteps of Malcolm X, who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, witnessed the multiracial equality of his fellow pilgrims, and repudiated the black supremacist beliefs promoted by Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. The children of both Malcom X and Muhammad Ali attest to Ali’s great regret at casting off his friend.

It’s hard not to idealize two such impressive people as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, and to want to linger over the electric black-and-white photos of them taken during that brief interlude when Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali were firm friends, particularly those that show them celebrating Ali’s legendary triumph over Sonny Liston in Miami in 1964. As Cornel West exults in the film, they were “the most free-est black men of their time.”

The film makes that argument that the complex life of Ali, especially, was oversimplified and too idealized late in his life because he’d become a figure of silent pathos. Once Parkinson’s disease robbed him of speech, there was no further condemnation from “the same people who’d treated him like a dog” in his controversial earlier years as the “Louisville Lip,” “Gaseous Cassius” — the boxer who famously threw his Olympic gold medal in the river and later sacrificed his heavyweight championship titles as a penalty for refusing to fight in Vietnam.

Still, the aftermath of the Malcolm X–Muhammad Ali friendship is, in its heartbreaking way, a useful cautionary tale. Even such relatively fearless people, when seeking to free themselves ideologically, can become entangled in the organization they join to help them in this endeavor, in another kind of rigid ideology.

Ali’s brother Rahman still regards Malcolm X’s supposed apostasy against Elijah Muhammad as a mistake, arguing that without the teachings of the Nation of Islam, his brother never could’ve achieved such greatness, either as a legendary World Heavyweight Champion, a civil rights icon, or an outspoken anti-imperialist and conscientious objector in the Vietnam era.

But director Clarke clearly regards Malcolm X’s late-life revelations as the lesson of the film:

People who are Black and brown, who are trying to achieve something, who have a mission, who feel like they have a purpose towards something, have to keep in mind that there’s always going to be forces at work trying to slow them, stop them or divide them…. We need more solidarity. This is what Malcolm was about. We have the same mission. Whether you’re in America, Africa, or the Caribbean, wherever Black and brown people are, we’re facing the same oppression.

The content makes this documentary memorable, rather than any particular techniques used by the director; there’s nothing formally daring about the film. For example, Clarke uses animation in order to dramatize the first meeting of Cassius Clay and Malcolm X, who didn’t yet know who Cassius Clay was but pretended he did because Clay carried himself like a living legend already.

But by now we’ve seen this technique used many times, and there’s nothing all that striking about the animation itself. Still, there are no photos of that first meeting, so animation makes sense, and it’s serviceable.

Fortunately, the typical content of documentaries — photos, film clips, interviews — are, in this case, pretty riveting. Every black-and-white photo of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, two of the twentieth century’s most dynamic people, practically makes the screen vibrate with energy. And we could all use a jolt of energy these days.