After a year fraught with political protests and demands for action and change, and some still demanding change, a documentary like “Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali” discusses loyalty and how to best achieve desired change.
At times, the documentary felt like a sports movie, looking at Ali’s meteoric rise to fame and winning of the heavyweight world championship. But the film also delved very deeply into the political climate and aspects of the lives of both Ali and X. And when it came time to discuss X’s assassination, it turned into almost a thriller, and made Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam appear almost like a cult.
These comparisons to a cult are never overtly stated, but the feeling is certainly there, especially when looking at the rules of the Nation of Islam, as well as the vehement worship of Elijah Muhammad, the rhetoric, the assassination of X and more.
All of these tonal shifts sound difficult to balance, but the documentary does a good job of this. In the same way that human lives change over time and no one person’s life can be explained easily, the relationship between Ali and X is difficult to explain. It was a relationship I didn’t know anything about before watching, despite being very interested in X’s teachings, especially at the end of his life.
A strong image of Ali and X’s relationship is painted through real footage of the two as well as heart-wrenching interviews with their family members, such as their daughters and Ali’s brother. There is also a prominent image painted of the ideological shift between these two men that brought them toward each other, and — unfortunately — away from each other.
Around the end of the documentary, a strong case is made that X and Ali are not dead; their messages and words are still quoted and even watched daily thanks to the internet.
Although Martin Luther King, Jr. is by far the most-quoted and most well-known civil rights leader, he does not get the focus of the film. He is only mentioned once. Instead, it looks at them and lesser-known civil rights leaders from even earlier times, such as Marcus Garvey and Elijah Muhammad. For those unaware, Garvey started the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, which Muhammad was a member of. After this, Muhammad started the Nation of Islam, which X and Ali were members of.
Another present-day event with a strong connection to the documentary is Simone Biles’ withdrawal from the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Ali was honored to represent America, and he competed in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, and won a gold medal for America in boxing.
Ali was also impressed by the lack of segregation in Rome, and greatly enjoyed his time there. But, when he returned home to Louisville, Kentucky, he was met with just as much segregation and hatred as before, and was even refused service while wearing his gold medal. Just like Biles rejected the Olympics for her own wellbeing, Ali famously threw his medal into the nearby Ohio River
Initially, the connection between Ali and X may seem unclear to some. Ali was a boxer, X was a civil rights leader. However, when their lives are analyzed more closely, it is more obvious why they became so connected.
Both were men who men changed their lives through religion, specifically Islam. And, as a result of this awakening, both of them changed their names, and were very dismissive when people referred to them by their birth names.
However, they both grew apart from each other as well, and that is highlighted as the tragedy at the heart of the film. It nearly brought a tear to my eye when I heard from Ali’s daughter and brother that he had regrets about reinforcing this rift between himself and X, especially after X shortly died later.
I would strongly suggest this documentary to anyone interested in either X or Ali separately as historical figures, or to anyone who likes learning about the civil rights movement. Usually, elementary schools only teach about Martin Luther King, Jr. To not mention X or Ali, or many more, is truly a disservice to them and to history.
“Blood Brothers: Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali” is available for streaming on Netflix.