“Destiny can take your best friend as an instrument to cause you harm and your worst enemy to do you good,” says Muhammad Ali a few minutes into this absorbing Netflix documentary. He is referring to black activist, Malcolm X, who had fallen out with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, a major force in the culture wars that rocked the United States in the 1960s.
“Judas betrayed Jesus. Malcolm X betrayed Elijah Muhammad,” he adds, in case his meaning wasn’t clear. What Ali didn’t realise was the terrible irony time would bestow on these words. This brutal repudiation of would-be saviour, Malcolm X, by a man he considered his “brother” would be a source of pain to both parties.
Marcus A. Clarke’s Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali, examines a close but doomed relationship between two charismatic figures. When Malcolm X was murdered by gunmen at a rally in New York City on 21 February, 1965, Ali showed no sympathy, parroting the extreme line taken by the Nation of Islam.
“Malcolm X and anyone else who attacks, or talks about attacking Elijah Muhammad will die. No man can oppose the Messenger of Almighty God,” he told an interviewer. It made no difference that Malcolm X had been personally responsible for introducing Ali to Elijah Muhammad and the inner circles of the movement.
The Nation of Islam offered Ali a sense of solidarity against institutionalised racism. By the early 1960s, as Cassius Clay, he had brought home a gold medal boxing for the USA at the Rome Olympics. He had also become a media superstar: loud, cocky, and – in his own words – “pretty as a girl”. Having returned to his home town in Louisville, Kentucky as an American hero, Ali found he still couldn’t get served in places reserved for white people.
Elijah Muhammad, the self-styled “Messenger”, was the supreme leader of a movement with paramilitary ambitions. Disciples dressed in weird uniforms, looking like bellboys, wearing little caps embroidered with the letters FOI (Fruit of Islam). This level of organisation was alarming to FBI boss, J.Edgar Hoover, who saw the group as a threat to national security.
If Elijah Muhammad was the unquestioned leader, Malcolm X was by far the most dynamic personality within the movement. A fiery demagogue, Malcolm was the son of a preacher who had been murdered by white supremacists. He had fallen into a life of crime and spent time in prison before being ‘saved’ by Elijah Muhammad, who quickly recognised his gifts as a speaker and organiser.
But Malcolm X was too passionate and intelligent to remain a mere factotum to a leader whose importance was belied by his dull personality and lacklustre delivery. Neither did Malcolm agree that the Messenger had a right to enjoy the sexual favours of young female disciples, fathering a host of illegitimate children.
When JFK was assassinated in 1963 Elijah Muhammad expressed his sympathies, but Malcolm – disobeying orders – told audiences that Kennedy’s murder showed “the chickens had come home to roost.”
The outcry that greeted these words drove Elijah Muhammad to reprimand and suspend his star performer. Despite his halo of sanctity the leader was essentially a politician who cared deeply about the growing power, wealth and prestige of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm was an idealist, committed to the cause of racial justice. He was no diplomat, being an outspoken critic of Martin Luther King’s tactics of non-violent resistance. Malcolm snarled that the black man wasn’t looking for trouble but would not back down when it arrived.
In the eyes of Hoover, and much of the media, Malcolm was an apostle of revolution, intent on the violent overthrow of the American Way of Life. His image was the diametric opposite of the Cassius Clay who had become a figure of popular adoration. At that stage, Clay was playing his cards close, keeping his interest in the Nation of Islam a secret.
When he was introduced to Malcolm there was an instant connection. Clay would come to view the older man as a mentor, while Malcolm took a keen interest in the boxer’s career and public profile. When Clay was preparing for his World Heavyweight Championship fight with Sonny Liston on February 26, 1964, Malcolm prayed with him before the bout, boosting his confidence. Clay’s historic victory was also a victory for Malcolm, who quickly moved to secure the fighter’s involvement in the Islamist cause.
It was at this point, with the growing estrangement between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, that the leader acted decisively to secure Clay’s loyalty, summoning him for an audience where he conferred upon him the name, Muhammad Ali. No longer shy of avowing his Islamic faith and his obedience to Elijah Muhammad, Ali followed the leader’s directives and severed ties with Malcolm.
Later that year both men were on separate tours of Africa when they met accidently in Ghana. Malcolm approached Ali and was shunned. It was a dismal end to the friendship, a rift that woud inflict deep emotional scars. Soon Malcolm would be dead, reputedly gunned down by followers of the Nation of Islam, although the actual culprits have never been brought to justice. The quest to unravel the truth behind the murder is the subject of the six-part Netflix series, Who Killed Malcolm X? which combines forensic detective work with an historical overview of the victim’s life and times.
There is still some argument as to whether Malcolm was a promoter of violence or a man of peace. He was opportunistic in courting a celebrity like Ali, but there seems to have been a genuine warmth between them. Either way, while the devious Elijah Muhammad has slipped into the shadows, Malcolm’s reputation today is bigger than ever. If there is a prophet behind the Black Lives Matter movement it is Malcolm X – largely because the racial injustices he denounced in the 1960s have yet to be remedied.
As for Ali, as he grew older and succumbed to Parkinson’s disease his days as an Islamist spokesman and an apostle of racial justice, were forgiven and forgotten. The people who reviled the loudmouth Cassius Clay or the stubborn Muhammad Ali who refused to be drafted to fight in Vietnam, would become admirers of the veteran sportsman.
One emerges from this engaging blend of interviews and archival footage, with the sense that the alliance between Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali was too dangerous to last.
Malcolm was intent on exposing America’s racial hypocrisies to the world, shaming lawmakers into action. He saw Ali, one of the most famous sportsmen of all time, as a major weapon in this enterprise, which would crumble with the boxer’s submission to the Nation of Islam and Malcolm’s killing. The FBI, the government, and Elijah Muhammad could breathe a collective sigh of relief and carry on with the kind of politics that has ensured every advance in civil rights has had minimal impact on the actual lives of African-Americans. Given the increasing extremism of politics today, one can only wonder if the poison from these old, untreated wounds has helped inflict a terminal illness on the body of American democracy.
Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali
Directed by Marcus A. Clarke
Based on a book by Randy Roberts & Johnny Smith
Starring Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Rahman Ali, Ilyasah Shabazz, Cornel West, Todd Boyd, Maryum Ali, Al Sharpton, Herb Boyd, Julius W.Garvey, A. Peter Bailey, Melchesidek Supreme Shabazz-Allah
USA, rated MA 15+, 96 mins
Streaming on Netflix
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 18 September, 2021