Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): Their complicated friendship

Netflix documentary film “Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali”, which was released in last September, examines the complicated friendship between two famous African American figures in the 1960s. Starting from their respective early years, the documentary shows us how they came to befriend each other as two angry African American men and then became separated several years later, and the overall result is another engaging look into the African American history in the 1960s.

These two figures in question are none other than Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, and the early part of the documentary alternates between the early chapters of their respective life stories. Even when they were very young, both Malcolm and Ali, who was Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. during that time, often saw and experienced infuriating cases of racism onto African Americans, and that certainly shaped their defiant non-conforming attitudes toward the American society in the future.

In case of Ali, he initially tried his best as a young promising boxer when he participated in the 1960 Rome Olympics, and he won a gold medal there, but there came a shock on the system for him. While he was in Rome, he was surprised by the absence of racial segregation which he and many black people had to face in US everyday, and then he was quite disillusioned when he later came to see that winning the gold medal did not change anything in his constantly discriminated status.

While he let himself sponsored by a group of rich old white people, Ali slowly began his own rebellion behind his back. When he happened to encounter a big black Muslim organization called the Nation of Islam, he found himself drawn more to the Nation of Islam and its leader Elijah Muhammad, and he subsequently met Malcolm X, who was already a very prominent figure in the Nation of Islam around that time. There was a time when he was nothing more than a small-time street criminal, but Malcolm became quite devoted to the Nation of Islam during his incarceration period, and it did not take much time for him to become one of Muhammad’s closest associates thanks to his natural charisma and considerable intelligence.

Although their first meeting was not exactly cordial, Ali and Malcolm got closer to each other as they hanged around more with each other, and then there came a very important moment in Ali’s athletic career in Miami at one night of February 1964. Many people expected that he was just another challenger to be defeated by defending champion Sonny Liston, but, what do you know, Ali came to glory in a surprise upset, and the documentary suggests that Malcolm’s presence around Ali was crucial in that unexpected outcome.

However, though he came to Miami as a supportive friend, Malcolm also had the other motive behind his back. Due to his very unwise public comment on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963, he got suspended by Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, and he really needed somebody to help him regaining his position, so he opened himself more to Ali for getting Ali drawn more to the Nation of Islam – and him. As a matter of fact, before that historic match, he brought his whole family to Miami for introducing them to Ali, and he did not even hesitate to publicize his supposedly strong relationship with Ali.

As admitted in the documentary, what exactly happened between Ali and Malcolm around that time remains to be unclear even at this point. Shortly after becoming the new champion, Ali and Malcolm had a celebration party along with many others including Ali’s several friends including Jim Brown and Sam Cooke, and then they spent the rest of the day along with these several friends of Ali in a motel room. Whatever was exchanged among Ali, Malcolm, and several figures in the room where it happened is still a big question mark, and that later became the main inspiration for Kemp Power’s acclaimed stage play “One Night in Miami”, which was subsequently made into the 2020 feature film directed by Regina King.

After that point, Ali recognized his new religious belief while also getting that new name under Muhammad’s blessing, but, to Malcolm’s disappointment, he only got more distant from Malcolm. When Malcolm officially left the Nation of Islam, Ali sided with Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, and he did not say any kind word to Malcolm when they came across each other while separately touring around a number of African nations in 1964. While Ali openly criticized Malcolm more, Malcolm became more critical of Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, and that eventually led to his tragic death in February 1965.

I must point out that it falters a bit when it attempt to summarize Ali’s life and career during next 50 years within its last few minutes, but “Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali”, which is based on Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith’s nonfiction book “Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X”, is fairly interesting on the whole, and director Marcus A. Clarke did a competent job of juggling a bunch of different interview clips and archival materials. Although it does not go beyond what I have learned from a number of documentaries and movies associated with Malcolm and Ali, it did its job as well as intended at least, so I will not grumble for now as mildly recommending it.

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