“Blood Brothers” floats on perceptive interviews, rich archival photos and pointed newsreel footage. It stings, too, with its exploration of two iconic, uncompromising figures who were friends for (the film persuasively argues) too short a spell. Director Marcus A. Clarke used Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith’s “Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X” as a touchstone for this documentary — available on Netflix — but also brought his own insights as a Black man in America to the work. The result is thought-provoking, resonant, often touching.
The duo envisioned by “One Night in Miami” were nearing the end of their deep bond when they celebrated Cassius Clay’s victory over Sonny Liston in the 1964 heavyweight title bout. Although Malcolm X was 16 years older, there were similarities. Each embodied curiosity. Each met white racism with gloves off. Both were verbal stylists. Ali waxed poetic. Malcolm X lit fires with a rhetoric and a spiritual vision that had roots in Marcus Garvey’s Pan Africanism and flourished in Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam.
“Blood Brothers” recounts the now-familiar events that led Malcolm Little to the Nation of Islam. It also recounts cultural and personal moments — the killing of Emmett Till being one — that led a teen in Louisville, KY, to question white supremacy. Friend and business manager Gene Kilroy tells of an angry epiphany Ali had upon visiting a white church where the congregants sang the exact same hymns that his Southern Baptist family sang each Sunday. The same songs and yet the white pastor told him to leave.
Although White racism is a presence, “Blood Brothers” is most telling in its portrait of a complicated friendship, one that revolved around power and faith. The movie doesn’t question the sincerity of either man’s fondness for the other. There are two photos that are especially striking for their abundance of joy: One features Ali with Malcolm, his wife Betty Shabazz, and their little daughters. Ali just beams. The other was shot the night of the Miami victory. The movie does a compelling job laying out how vulnerable this relationship was, given their faith, given Ali’s ascendency in the nation and the Nation. In an early clip, Ali reads a statement about Jesus and Judas that clearly references what he saw as Malcolm X’s betrayal of Elijah Muhammad. For the record, that quote came years after Malcolm’s murder.
Ali’s and Malcolm X’s cultural meaning are still being parsed and perhaps repurposed. “Blood Brothers” underscores the shifting demands placed on leaders. They can be pinned like butterflies to whatever ideology resonates for those they inspired. There was defiant Ali. There was ailing Ali. There was incendiary Malcolm X and there was reflective Malcolm X.
A dissertation can be written about the way Ali’s and Malcolm X’s legacies are upheld here by their daughters. The film begins with Ilyasah Shabazz stating that her father and Cassius Clay’s meeting was destined. Author Hana Ali shares near the film’s end that one of her father’s greatest regrets was turning his back on Malcolm X. Other interviewees include U. of Southern California professor Todd Boyd, scholar Cornel West and Marcus Garvey’s son, Dr. Julius Garvey.
The Rev. Al Sharpton offers one of the more incisive descriptions of Malcolm X’s influence at the time: “Martin Luther King Jr. … spoke to who we must become. Malcolm spoke to who we were and who put us there.” Among the most moving interviews are those with Rahman Ali. Ali lays poignant claim to his older brother. “I am proud to say I am the only brother of Muhammad Ali,” he says as we watch him maneuver a walker toward his brother’s gravesite.
In the most shattering sequence in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” the camera follows Malcolm in the lead-up to his assassination at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. Denzel Washington’s Malcolm looks like the loneliest man on the planet. “Blood Brothers” confirms how spot-on that image was. Yes, he had the boundless support of Betty Shabazz, but his ersatz father figure Elijah Muhammad had withdrawn his love, casting Malcolm out of the Nation. What Malcolm did with the exile is legendary: He went to Mecca. He reformulated his relationship to Islam. Ali would have a similar conversion decades later.
In May 1964, Malcolm X and Ali cross paths in Ghana. It had been barely three months since that night in Miami and everything had changed. Outside a hotel, Ali essentially snubs his former friend and mentor. It’s crushing to consider that hurt, that sundering. “Blood Brother” makes a riveting case for the loss — both personal and cultural — and in its own profound way attempts to repair that rift.