When looking back on the most significant events and figures of the mid-20th Century, it doesn’t take long before you come face-to-face with two of the most prominent voices of the era — Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. Despite coming from different parts of the United States and having two completely different professions, there is a great deal of history shared by the two, a history that is covered in great detail in the Netflix documentary Blood Brothers: Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.
This 90-minute documentary dives into what drew the two icons together, what ultimately tore them apart, and the impact their brief friendship had on the world we live in today. Here are six things we learned about Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and their brotherhood…
The Mistreatment Of Black Americans Crafted Both Malcolm X And Muhammad Ali’s Attitudes
There are a lot of things Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali had in common, even when they were young kids growing up in different parts of the country. As discussed in Blood Brothers: Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little, formed the worldview that he would carry with him for the rest of his life at a very young age. When Malcolm was just a young boy, his father was allegedly killed by a white supremacist group in Lansing, Michigan, who knocked him over the head, dragged his body over the cable car tracks, and waited for a train to run him over, killing him in the process.
Later on in the documentary, it is pointed out that Cassius Clay, was deeply impacted by the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago who was brutally beaten to death after allegedly wolf-whistling at a white woman while visiting family in Money, Mississippi. This moment would be a searing event for the 13-year-old Clay and created a sensitivity to oppression that would stick with him the rest of his life.
Cassius Clay’s Experience At The 1960 Rome Olympics Opened His Eyes To The World
In the summer of 1960, an 18-year-old Cassius Clay (before adopting the name Muhammad Ali) traveled to Rome, Italy, to participate in the Summer Olympics. At one point, Johnny Smith, co-author of the Blood Brothers book that inspired the Netflix documentary, said Clay could not be more proud to represent America at this time in his life. But, after winning Olympic gold and experiencing life in a country that didn’t have any of the racist Jim Crow laws found in America, Clay came back to America and had one of the most humiliating experiences of his life.
Upon returning to his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, Cassius (wearing his Olympic jacket and gold medal) went to a diner and the man behind the counter looked at him and said “We don’t serve your kind, boy.” Feeling humiliated by the experience, Clay ripped off his medal and threw it in the Ohio River, rejecting America in the process.
Cassius Clay’s Bond With Malcolm X Nearly Caused His Biggest Fight To Get Scrapped
After running into one another here and there in the early 1960s, Cassius Clay and Malcolm X started to become closer and closer as they began discussing religion, politics, and other topics of conversation. As the months and years went by, the friendship turned into a teacher-student relationship with the older Malcolm guiding Clay on a spiritual journey that would lead to the boxer converting to Islam.
In the lead-up to Cassius Clay’s February 1964 fight with heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, Clay’s relationship with Malcolm X became a point of contention for the promoters, specifically in regards to the boxer’s connection to the Nation of Islam, which was viewed as a radical group at the time. At one point, Clay said he was going to go home and once the promoters found out, they approached him and said the fight was still on but to not talk about Islam. The fight would go on and Cassius Clay became the greatest boxer of all time.
Malcolm X’s Split From The Nation Of Islam Irrevocably Damaged His Friendship With Muhammad Ali
Throughout the early 1960s, the relationship between Malcolm X and the Messenger of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, soured, and after a series of incidents, Malcolm was banished from the organization. This exile affected every aspect of Malcolm’s life, including his friendship with Muhammad Ali, who sided with the Nation of Islam instead of the man who had been his brother the past few years.
Following Malcolm X’s departure from the Nation of Islam, Muhammad Ali became one of his most vocal opponents, so much so that it seemed like they were never close friends at all. Malcolm, who was going through a change and becoming less radical at the time, attempted to keep the peace in various television and newspaper interviews, but he became a marked man by turning against Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, no matter how hard he tried to argue for peace.
The Assassination Of Malcolm X Deeply Affected Muhammad Ali Despite His Outward Appearance
On February 21, 1965, while preparing for a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City, Malcolm X was assassinated when three members of the Nation of Islam approached him and shot him a total of 21 times. In the months and even years following the assassination of his one-time brother, Muhammad Ali appeared on multiple news shows saying that anyone who crossed Elijah Muhammad must die. This tragic turn is discussed at length in Blood Brothers: Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, especially in the final section, where Ali’s brother, Rahman, opened up about his late brother.
Rahman Ali admitted that he never talked to his brother about regrets following the assassination of Malcolm X, but that he knew his brother and knew that it hurt him. Earlier in the documentary, Maryum Ali, the boxer’s daughter, said her father kept Malcolm X’s teachings close to his heart until the day he died.
After He Severed Ties With The Nation Of Islam, Muhammad Ali Contacted Malcolm X’s Family
Muhammad Ali would later sever ties with the Nation of Islam and follow the less hardline Sunni Islam, just like Malcolm X did in his final days, which would eventually lead to the boxer contacting and visiting his late friend’s family. In Blood Brothers: Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcolm’s daughter, explained that after he left the organization, Ali contacted her family to reconnect. She said it seemed like her father’s old friend felt he owed it to her father to make sure his family were safe and that they were okay. The documentary then cuts to Attallah Shabazz speaking at Muhammad Ali’s funeral, where she talks about how Ali felt a great deal of grief for having not made amends with Malcolm before he was assassinated.
This is just a small sampling of all the ground that is covered in Blood Brothers: Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, which is undoubtedly one of the best documentaries of the year. If you’ve already watched the eye-opening documentary, there are plenty of other great and profound 2021 Netflix movies available to stream right now.
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Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop barking at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.