Titans of influence from their individual trenches, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali were instrumental in carving a prideful and revolutionary vision for the future of Black people stateside and abroad over the course of some of their most media-hectic years. That the two of them were connected not solely by being contemporaries, but through an intimate, if short-lived, friendship, resonates as a sonic boom of fateful proportions.
But as the documentary “Blood Brothers” from director Marcus A. Clarke examines, the schism that ended their fraternal bond was just as thunderous. Using the same-title book by researches Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith, both talking heads in the film, as a guide, Clarke first maps out in broad strokes their separate ascents to prominence: one as a radical speaker for Black liberation and the other displaying his towering prowess in sport.
This conventionally informative piece of historical nonfiction briefly traces Malcolm X’s affinity for the ideals of activist Marcus Garvey, following what many considered a lifestyle of vice, and Ali’s early confrontation with abhorrent racial hatred via the murder of Emmett Till. The juxtaposition of their early days highlights how seemingly disparate their experiences were before their winding paths came together in 1962 through the Nation of Islam and its leader Elijah Muhammad.
By then Malcolm X’s fiery sermons denouncing the evils of white supremacy had earned him great notoriety and a devout following. As Cassius Clay, Ali had achieved fame as a boisterous and unapologetically triumphant Black man setting a new benchmark for excellence. In contextualizing the significance of their union, for them as brothers in destiny and for Black Muslims, “Blood Brothers” avoids a reverential approach opting for one where the personal, pondering how they felt about each other, gains priority.
But though the thematic objective may be to dig into the less concrete aspects of their association, an expected arsenal of newsreels, archival footage, excerpts from Malcolm X’s autobiography, and interviews with the likes of with Reverend Al Sharpton and Dr. Cornel West, produce a formally standard effort. The excessive use of dates to note a very precise timeline pushes the film towards the realm of the didactic. A small but welcome reprise from the structural pattern manifest as a graphic novel-like sequence done in simple 2D animation depicting the exact the moment inside a cafeteria when Malcolm X and Ali met for the very first time.
On screen, the bond itself, in its most tangible and public form, is limited to a couple of photographs of joyful moments after momentous victories and statements to the press about their mutual fondness (and later their falling out). The real expansion of the official story is in the insight from those interviewed and their perspective on what was lost when their brotherhood perished at the hands of outside factors. Their meeting at the Hampton House Hotel which was fictionalized first in Kemp Powers’ play and eventually on screen in last year’s “One Night in Miami…” from director Regina King, also gets a mention but with less fanfare.
Save for a couple mentions to compare the Nation of Islam’s doctrine with his conciliatory teachings, Martin Luther King Jr. is set aside and not folded into this narrative (Sam Pollard’s excellent doc “MLK/FBI” works as companion piece to address that angle). Since the focus remains on the platonic triangle between the two young figures and Elijah Muhammad, the spiritual father who precipitated their split, the pathos overshadows other subjects that merited greater consideration.
For example, the ideological manipulation of Ali that would not only lead him to sever ties with Malcolm X but to profess that anyone who questioned his flawed religious leader should face punishment. Similarly, Malcolm X’s intentions in realizing the potential of Ali as a symbol for the movement are not discussed in depth, and neither are his accusations of Elijah Muhammad’s polygamous lifestyle. Still, what does get covered has the benefit of being mostly analyzed within a Black context without accounting for what the white dominant culture at the time thought of their dynamics.
Having said about the material at hand, a rather sour note is how much of a protagonist Smith, one of the co-authors of the book is. The issue is not only that his voice, as a white academic behind the source text, is the most prominent of all the speakers (that may as well have been a choice agreed on by the director and editor), but that he seems to project his personal sentiments onto what he believes either of the two men he wrote about would have felt. Fewer of his impassioned interjections would mean more space for other elements.
Such as hearing more from those who knew them or are directly related to them, as is the case of Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz, who movingly recalls a photo of her as a child on her father’s arms, or Ali’s brother Rahman gleefully sharing his pride and eagerness to meet him in the afterlife. A meeting between the former comrades’ daughters could have made for an even more striking proposition on enduring legacy and the toll of being the children of icons, but alas “Blood Brothers” is worthwhile for the introspective investigation of lives so often, in the public eye, devoid of the tangled humanity that all interpersonal relationships carry.
“Blood Brothers” is now streaming on Netflix.