There are many entertainment films that Netflix produces and broadcasts, but there are also serious productions that other film companies may not release for fear of commercial failure. “The Irishman” by Martin Scorsese in 2019 is an example of such films in the fiction cinema genre, and “Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali” (2022/21) is an example from the documentary or non-fiction genres.
Each of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali deserves a separate movie and Hollywood did not postpone that. In 1992, Spike Lee set out to make his biographical film "Malcolm X" starring Denzel Washington. After that, he made the movie “Ali” (2001), which also falls under the biographical genre, with William Smith playing the role of the world’s most famous boxer
There is also a large number of documentaries that based their narratives on data collected during the lifetimes of both men from activities and events until MalcolmX was assassinated or Muhammad Ali decided to quit boxing, content with his achievements.
However, no movie comes close to “Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali” except for a movie about a night when four African-Americans gathered in a hotel and discussed the issue of Muhammad Clay's conversion from Christianity to Islam. The movie is called “One Night in Miami,” which took the director Regina King one-year work in 2020.
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI
“One Night in Miami” is a drama about four real-life personalities who get together on a night meant to celebrate and re-live a friendship that once linked them - the boxer Muhammad Ali (when he was still known as Cassius Clay) and the political advocate Malcolm X, who was about to separate from the preacher Elijah Muhammad and the "Nation of Islam" group. There was also the singer Sam Cooke at the peak of his success, and the actor Jim Brown who was starting to think seriously about retiring from football and dedicating his future for acting. They meet to celebrate Muhammad Ali's last victory in the boxing ring and his coronation, and the events take place in 1964.
The meeting site is a hotel apartment rented by Malcolm. The meeting takes place after a brief introduction to the situation of each of these characters before their meeting. The introduction leads directly to researching the relationship that links each of them and at the same time links it to the tense political situation during a year that witnessed the height of racist issues in the country and after the assassination of the preacher Martin Luther King and two years before the assassination of Malcolm X himself.
Clay had still not converted to Islam at the invitation of Malcolm X, and much of the dialogue between this quartet stems from Muhammad Ali's intention to convert and racism in the United States. Malcolm was pushing forward an anti-racism policy, criticizing the status quo by which an American is condemned by the color of his skin, while the authorities were defending the institution as it is. The pivotal confrontation is between him and singer Sam Cooke. Malcolm X believes Cooke sold himself through his emotional songs to perpetuate the status quo, as his songs are devoid of any form of criticism or resistance. In his defense, Cooke argues that art comes first and that, as a producer, he helps many black people.
The dispute grows here before leaving a positive impact on everyone. They will not meet again altogether, but Sam Cooke will later compose his famous song “I Was Born by the River” to reflect Malcolm X's call to him to direct his songs to become purposeful.
FRIENDSHIP BEFORE ENMITY
“Brothers of Blood: Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali,” however, is completely different from any of these three previous films or others. Its subject is multi-layered and walks viewers through the most important milestones that affected the personality of the preacher Malcolm and the boxer Muhammad, in addition to the severe racial situation in the sixties and the conflict between the Muslim wing following the preacher Elijah Muhammad and those who followed Malcolm X.
For a start, the film (colored and uses mostly black and white documents) combines documentaries and interviews (with many characters, including Muhammad Ali's daughter, his brother Abdul Rahman, and Malcolm X's daughter Elisa Shabazz). There is also a small part with black and white animation, all of which seek to reveal what most of us did not know about that period and the friendship and enmity it beheld. At the beginning of the film, there is an implication that we will be watching a work about the two characters and how Muhammad Ali converted to Islam with the encouragement and patronage of Malcolm X. The plot, however, thickens and unexpected surprises appear (not a surprise for those who read Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith’s “Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X) and accounts and personal convictions start to overlap, which leads to a great divergence between the two.
Muhammad Ali was the focus of the attention of each of Elijah Muhammad (who headed the “Nation of Islam”) and Malcolm X, who in the early sixties was one of Elijah’s closest students and the media spokesperson for the organization. But there was a dispute between the two over the intensity of the call that Malcolm X adopted against white racism, demanding the segregation of the predominantly black states from those with a white majority.
On the other hand, Elijah Muhammad focused his call on building an organization that calls for Islam without politicizing it, run by him, and he was highly glorified and even considered a “messenger” (as he said in at least one of his speeches). As Malcolm left Elijah's cloak, tension sparked between the two and reinforced Malcom’s quest to recruit Muhammad Ali to demonstrate his ability to create his own organization that would have big names.
However, Muhammad Ali was about to join the “Nation of Islam” despite the great friendship with Malcolm X. His motive was initially unclear (not even convincing at any later time), based on the fact that it was Malcolm who invited the boxer to convert to Islam, and then on the grounds that they exchanged family visits.
It all ended when Muhammad Ali decided to join the Nation of Islam, pay tribute to Elijah Muhammad and attack Malcolm X on every possible occasion.
On one of those occasions, he said: “Whoever disobeys the teachings of Elijah Muhammad must be put to death.” The scene appears in the last half hour of the film when the facts urge us to distance ourselves from Muhammad Ali in favor of Malcolm X.
The film does not explain any reasons beyond what we see, and that is Elijah Muhammad's success in luring Muhammad Ali in, which turned into an attack against Malcolm X's stances against racism.
The reality is that Malcolm X was an individual heading a group of people like himself calling for an end to racism, albeit in violent forms, in the face of increasing violence by white supremacists (the film uses scenes of the hangings of black people in public squares and mentions other traumatic events). Regardless of the size of this group, the appeal here was political in contrast to Elijah Muhammad's teachings, which are comparatively less extreme. Nonetheless, the media and most Americans considered them equally extremist.
Malcolm here grows into a tragic image of a fighter against racism. From the beginning he was the individual resisting authority in the face of the organization that knew how to operate within the larger organization (the United States). One might not agree with Malcolm's call to avenge the killing of blacks by killing whites but would understand his motives since he lost his father after white people beat him and then dragged him to the railroad where the train passed over him and turned him into a lifeless lump of meat. This is presented as evidence of the rampant white racism (here the film uses model images) during the sixties (before and after).
Malcolm was aware that the prospects for his advocacy were primarily political and sought to meet with African leaders, among them Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, to underline his role at that crucial stage of his life.
Malcolm's tour of the African continent took place at the same time with Muhammad Ali’s tour there. The first was looking for political support and the other for outreach to his African audience. The two met without a date in a capital, but Muhammad Clay refused to shake hands with Malcolm X, who returned to the United States with a new outlook, less violent than before but without concessions. The film accuses Elijah Muhammad of hiring killers to assassinate Malcolm X, which actually took place on February 21, 1965, when Malcom was at the age of 39.
The more the film goes on in its historical research, the more it incites the feeling of the enormity of Malcolm's loss and the great mistake that Muhammad Clay committed due to his ferocity in his unjustified attack on his old friend. In the end, according to Elisa Shabazz (Malcolm X's daughter), Muhammad Ali told her he was sorry for what he had done to her father.
The film is good in terms of historical research as it ticks all the boxes, transitioning smoothly between different situations and dates. What the film monitors throughout is how racism led to attempts of individual confrontations by these poles (in addition to the Christian missionary Martin Luther King, who called for peaceful confrontations).
“Blood Brotherhood” has no special agendas. It lays before us in a wonderful synthesis by Paul Carothers and Jeremy Seaver, and more than suitable music by Thomas Brink, are facts preoccupied with masterful artistic direction and with realistic historical content that establishes a whole new knowledge of that convergence and divergence between the two most important African-American figures of the twentieth century, or between two of the most important. The film does not seek publicity, rhetoric, and favoring one person over another. This preference comes naturally and according to the viewers' conviction, separately.
* Mohammed Rouda is Asia World Film Festival consultant, programmer, and script writer. He wrote books on cinema. He’s also a member of: Fipresci (International Federation of Film Critics), London Film Circle MPAA (the media section, Hollywood), and Hollywood Foreign Press Association.