It’s Muhammad Ali’s documentary season, it seems, with Ken Burns’ four-part series about the legendary champion playing on PBS, and Marcus C. Clarke’s. Blood Brothers: Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali currently available on Netflix.
Clarke’s documentary doesn’t explore entirely new ground – we’ve had a number of documentaries and fictional films dealing at least briefly with aspects of men’s friendship, most recently the Regina King film. One night in Miami – but the intensity of the focus on the strained three-year relationship, as well as the commentary from Cornel West, Ali Rahman’s younger brother, Ali and Malcolm X’s daughters, and many others make it this compelling film.
And frankly, depressing. There is a tragic irony at the center of the film that haunts long after seeing it dramatically presented in the documentary. The friendship of Malcolm X and the dazzling young boxer, then known by his birth name Cassius Clay, fresh out of his Olympic triumph in Rome but already soured by his return to Jim Crow America, centers on Malcolm X encouraging Clay in his interest in the Nation of Islam.
In the early 1960s, this growing organization, which stood outside of major American white supremacist institutions, including the highly segregated Christian church, offered young black men a way to see themselves as empowered, empowered, and empowered. connected to an international fraternity. 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.
Thanks to his remarkable oratorial skills, Malcolm X quickly rose to a position of power just behind “the messenger”, Elijah Muhammad. But these same skills created controversy within the organization and ended up being seen as a threat. Even as Malcolm X lured Cassius Clay into the Nation of Islam, he himself was forced to leave.
The newly appointed Muhammad Ali was forced to choose between the undisputed authority of Elijah Muhammad among the disciples, and his friend Malcolm X. Malcolm was called a religious “hypocrite”, a charge so serious that it was called among the faithful of the death penalty. Ali chose “the messenger” and denounced Malcolm X.
It wasn’t until years later, long after the assassination of Malcolm X and the more recent death of Elijah Muhammad, that Ali traveled to Mecca and discovered what his daughter called “the real one.” Islam ”. He belatedly followed in the footsteps of Malcolm X, who made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, witnessed the multiracial equality of his fellow pilgrims and repudiated black supremacist beliefs promoted by Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. The children of Malcom X and Muhammad Ali bear witness to Ali’s great regret at having rejected his friend.
It’s hard not to idealize two people as impressive as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, and want to dwell on the electric black and white photos of them taken during this brief interlude when Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali were good friends. , especially those who show them celebrating Ali’s legendary triumph over Sonny Liston in Miami in 1964. As Cornel West rejoices in the film, they were “the freest black men of their time.”
The film makes this argument that Ali’s complex life, in particular, was oversimplified and over-idealized at the end of his life because he had become a figure of the silent pathos. Once Parkinson’s disease robbed him of his speech, there were no further convictions of “the same people who treated him like a dog” in his controversial early years as the “Louisville Lip”, “Gaseous Cassius” – the boxer who threw his famous Olympic Gold Medal in the river and later sacrificed his heavyweight titles as a penalty for refusing to fight in Vietnam.
Yet the consequences of the Malcolm X-Muhammad Ali friendship are, in their heartbreaking way, a useful caveat. Even these relatively intrepid people, when they seek to free themselves ideologically, can find themselves entangled in the organization they are joining to help them in this endeavor, in another kind of rigid ideology.
Ali’s brother, Rahman, still views Malcolm X’s supposed apostasy against Elijah Muhammad as a mistake, claiming that without the teachings of the Nation of Islam his brother could never have attained such greatness, either as as a legendary heavyweight world champion, civil rights icon, or an anti-imperialist outspoken and conscientious objector during the Vietnam era.
But director Clarke clearly consider Malcolm X’s late revelations as a lesson from the film:
Black and brown people, who are trying to accomplish something, who have a mission, who feel like they have a purpose for something, should keep in mind that there will always be strengths to the work that will try to slow them down, stop them or divide them…. We need more solidarity. That’s what Malcolm was. We have the same mission. Whether you are in America, Africa or the Caribbean, wherever blacks and browns are, we face the same oppression.
The content makes this documentary memorable, rather than the particular techniques used by the director; there is nothing formally daring about the film. For example, Clarke uses animation to dramatize the first meeting of Cassius Clay and Malcolm X, who didn’t yet know who Cassius Clay was but claimed he knew because Clay was already behaving like a living legend.
But now we’ve seen this technique used a number of times, and there is nothing so striking about the animation itself. Still, there are no photos from that first meeting, so the animation makes sense and it’s helpful.
Fortunately, the typical content of documentaries – photos, film clips, interviews – is, in this case, quite captivating. Each black and white photo of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, two of the most dynamic people of the twentieth century, practically vibrates the screen with energy. And we could all use an energy dump these days.