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When Blood Brothers director Marcus A. Clarke was presented with the opportunity to make a film about the relationship and subsequent fallout between Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, he wasn’t aware the two developed a friendship from 1962 to 1965. Now with Netflix’s Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali, which is produced by Kenya Barris, Clarke explores the connection between the two iconic civil rights activists and why it ended before Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965.
Inspired by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith’s book of the same name, Clarke’s documentary, set to release on Netflix on Sept. 9, includes never-before-seen footage and interviews from family members including Ali’s brother Rahman.
Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the documentary’s release, Clarke says to tackle their friendship, he first needed to portray the activists authentically as individuals and offer different perspectives about their lives that previous films and shows hadn’t.
“[Malcolm X] has been branded as one of the most incendiary civil rights leaders. You get a very angry kind of impression of Malcolm,” he tells THR. However with Blood Brothers, Clarke aimed to portray the minister with more compassion. “This is Malcolm X, the father [and] the brother, if you will, to Cassius Clay in many ways.” Clarke says when reviewing archival material between Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, they “really look like some of the happiest moments in both of their lives. There’s an admiration that you can see.”
“People forget that Malcolm X was 17 years older than Cassius Clay so there was more wisdom, there was more of an understanding of the world, and, most importantly, there was a greater understanding of the teachings of Elijah Muhammad.”
In terms of Ali’s legacy, Clarke explains, “We celebrate him in a way where I think that people will sometimes forget just from what he came and the journey he had to become Muhammad Ali–to become this beloved hero.”
Clarke notes that though there is not a simple answer as to why the two gravitated toward each other, it’s clear the Nation of Islam was the biggest connection between them. “It really comes down to the philosophy of the Nation of Islam at that particular time period because the message they’re saying is the opposite of what Black people have been told in America. It’s the opposite of saying ‘you’re less than,’ ‘you’re subordinate,’ or ‘you’re inferior.’ The Nation was telling them ‘You’re divine, and, in fact, if you knew your history, you’d understand that you have godly traits,’ ” he explains.
Through his documentary, Clarke attempts to make a connection between these teachings and Malcolm X’s belief that Ali could win the heavyweight champion title against Sonny Liston in 1964. Ali’s victory and his interactions with Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown after the fight are the subject of Regina King’s film One Night in Miami. After watching the film, Clarke says he was glad King brought their relationship to the big screen but notes the film left out an important person: Rahman Ali, Muhammad Ali’s younger brother.
“Rahman Ali is a big part of our film. He’s one of the most precious interviews that we have and is really an emotional anchor—an emotional linchpin, if you will—for the story thread,” Clarke notes. “Rahman Ali is with Muhammad Ali everywhere he goes. He’s part of his foundation. He’s part of his support circle. It’s his brother. He is the blood brother.” Rahman provided “soul and real character and authenticity,” Clarke says, to Blood Brothers, given Rahman’s insight is “as close as you can get to Muhammad Ali.”
The documentary also explores how Malcolm X publicly accused Elijah Muhammad of having children with teenage girls, which caused Ali to stand by the Nation of Islam instead of Malcolm X. Clarke believes it has been overlooked how Ali regretted the way his friendship with Malcolm X ended and that the boxer tried to make amends later in life.
“Ali’s regret changed into action,” Clarke explains. “I think that redemption that he searched for in forming a relationship with [Malcolm X’s daughters] Attallah Shabazz and Ilyasah Shabazz shows that he was trying to make right for the regret that he felt in the past.”
Though Ali and Malcolm X were not close when the civil rights leader was assassinated, their families still speak to each other today. Blood Brothers includes a clip from Ali’s funeral in 2016 that shows Attallah Shabazz talking about how the late athlete positively impacted her life.
“These families are connected now through history. This three-year period not only changed the trajectory of history but changed the trajectory of both of these men’s lives and subsequently their families as well.”
Blood Brothers premieres on Netflix on Sept. 9. THR shares an exclusive clip below.
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