'The two freest Black men of the 20th century': Netflix doc traces Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali's friendship, fallout

·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
·6-min read
UNITED STATES - MARCH 02:  Cassius Marcellus Clay (Muhammad Ali) with Black Muslim leader Malcolm X at 125th St. and Seventh Ave.  (Photo by John Peodincuk/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) with Malcolm X in New York City in 1964. (Photo: John Peodincuk/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Last year’s Oscar-nominated drama One Night in Miami offered a fictionalized look at the February 1964 gathering of African American icons Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali (still known as Cassius Clay at the time), Jim Brown and Sam Cooke.

One aspect that rang true, however, was the deep, conflicted bond between Ali (Eli Goree), who had just defeated Sonny Liston in the heavyweight title bout, and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), the boxer’s friend and mentor in the teachings of the Nation of Islam.

While One Night in Miami offered a small window into their complex dynamic, Marcus A. Clarke’s new Netflix documentary Blood Brothers takes a deep dive into a three-year relationship that ended in tragedy when Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. Bonded first and foremost by their Muslim faith, Ali and Malcolm were two of the most vocal crusaders against racism, injustice and white supremacy — so much so that early in the documentary, famed activist and social critic Cornel West calls the duo “the two freest Black men of the 20th century.”

Clarke agrees. “It's incredibly powerful statement,” he told Yahoo Entertainment during a recent virtual interview. “I think today, when we look at their legacies, people forget just how different the times were then. For someone like Cassius Clay in 1964 to take on a Muslim name and to reject his given name, this was really controversial. This was explosive. It wasn't well received. It wasn't well accepted. … And yet his faith was such that he still did it and committed to it 100 percent. That does take a certain degree of fearlessness.

“At this time, it was rare for African Americans to see people like this, Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, speaking the way they were speaking, saying the things they were saying and really exuding extreme amounts of confidence and pride about who they were as Black men and who they were in terms of their potential. And they really owned their stories. They didn't let the messages that we've heard over the years of, you know, being two-thirds of a man or being inferior, they didn't subscribe to that message. And that's something that had a really powerful impact, not only on Black people, but on America.”

Based on the book by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith and produced by Kenya Barris, Blood Brothers traces its subjects’ parallel paths to the Nation of Islam, including formative moments that shaped their revolutionary world views (Malcolm’s father was believed to be tortured and killed by a white supremacist terrorist outfit called the Black Legion; Clay returned from his gold medal performance at the 1960 Summer Olympics to find he was still treated as a second-class citizen), and how a student-teacher relationship formed between the pair after Clay became a Muslim in 1961.

“Both men, to some degree were, very defiant and fearless,” says Clarke, who previously directed the documentary The Wizrd (2019), about hip-hop star Future. “And I think some of that was actually ushered in by Malcolm X and his influence on Cassius Clay. I think people forget that Malcolm X was 17 years older than Muhammad Ali, Cassius Clay at the time. And so he had a kind of a greater understanding of the world, how things work. But the central thing that really does bind them, to be honest, is the faith, it's the faith in the Nation of Islam, in the teachings of Elijah Muhammad that they're both kind of embodying and taking on. And I think it's really their outlook on the world.”

Though their bond was deep, their “potent” relationship was brief, lasting only from 1962 to 1965.

“To understand these two men, you really have to understand, what it means to be Black in America, particularly in this time period,” Clarke explains. “You have to understand what the temperature was of America at that time and what Black folks were facing: discrimination, segregation, police brutality, all these things that we know about, and that had a really profound effect on who these men were and how they navigated the world. … Malcolm X is a man who was speaking truth to power. He was a master orator and he was saying things that at the time, Black people wouldn't say out loud, necessarily. He was saying things that were really explosive, accusatory, and trying to hold someone responsible for the tragedies that have happened to Black people in this country. And so I think Cassius Clay, seeing someone like that, a mentor like that, being able to speak so freely, it had a profound influence on him and who he would later become as Muhammad Ali.”

MARTHA'S VINEYARD, MASSACHUSETTS - AUGUST 09: Marcus A. Clarke attends the
Marcus A. Clarke attends the "Blood Brothers" screening during the 2021 Martha's Vineyard Film Festival on Aug. 9, 2021. (Photo: Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for Martha's Vineyard Film Festival)

In 1964, as Malcolm X parted ways with the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad, their relationship deteriorated. Malcolm denounced Elijah Muhammad, and Ali denounced Malcolm. It’s why Clarke ultimately sees their story as a tragedy.

“It’s a tragedy of biblical proportions,” the filmmaker says. “It's like Black Shakespeare, and it is tragic. And it is unfortunate, but in that three-year window, when they're together learning from each other, feeding off of each other, in terms of motivation and inspiration, this small three-year window really changes the trajectory of their lives and changes the trajectory of history. And so it is tragic and it's unfortunate, but I think that we have to be able to celebrate our heroes while also looking at some of the harder aspects of it, whether it's mistakes or transgressions or potential missteps to get a really full understanding of who they are.”

While Ali died in 2016 at the age of 74, Clarke wonders how different American history would be had Malcolm X not been killed, especially when it comes to social justice movements like #BlackLivesMatter.

“The things that Malcolm X was working on toward the end of his life, in terms of holding the United States responsible for police brutality and ills against African Americans, this was his mission, this was front of mind. He was trying to address and have an organized response to exactly the things we're seeing today.

“So how would Black Lives Matter be different if he wasn’t assassinated? Would we need the Black Lives Matter movement, if Malcolm X wasn't assassinated? In 1957 he basically organizes a March against the police department at that time because of issues of police brutality. And so not only was he trying to be kind of a lawyer and an ambassador and a representative for Black people, but he was trying to put a stop to the exact issues that we're still dealing with 55-plus years later.”

Blood Brothers is now streaming on Netflix.