Blood Brothers: Malcolm X And Muhammad Ali Director On How The Netflix Film Shows A New Side To Two Icons [Interview]

"Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali" hits Netflix today, and this documentary has only grown more relevant since last summer when the George Floyd protests swept the nation. The film explores the friendship between two American and African-American icons, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, and how their lives were closely intertwined for three years, from 1962 to 1965, before outside forces drove a wedge between them.

Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, and Muhammad Ali later developed Parkinson's disease, which left him unable to speak for himself in front of the cameras the way he did before. "Blood Brothers" platforms the voices of their family members along with well-known contemporary figures like the Rev. Al Sharpton and Cornel West. In doing so, it gives deeper dimension to both men, their fraught relationship, and their place in history.

I recently had a chance to speak with the film's director, Marcus A. Clarke ("Unsolved Mysteries"), and in this wide-ranging interview, we discussed the film, its depiction of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, his own background working for Spike Lee, and what informed certain storytelling decisions, such as the use of striking, noir-like graphic novel animation to re-enact select scenes.

'I really wanted to show a portrait of him as a man, as a father, as a compassionate human being.'

One of the most powerful moments in this film comes when you have Dr. Todd Boyd talking about Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali's legacy and the rewriting or editing of narratives and what's presented to the public. I wanted to ask you first, as a documentary filmmaker, someone who is dealing with legacy but also history and humanity, how did you approach the depiction of their relationship?

That was definitely one of the challenges with the film. But I really wanted to show a different perspective, a different POV, on Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. So a lot of the creative decisions that went into the film were kind of avoiding some of the things we've seen in the past.

You know, in the past, we've seen Malcolm X depicted as angry and as fiery. He's been coined the most incendiary civil rights leader. But I really wanted to show a portrait of him as a man, as a father, as a compassionate human being. And I think, with the decisions that we made in the film, opening after the title card of "Blood Brothers," the film opens with this big beautiful smile from Malcolm X, in this moment where he's spending time with Cassius Clay. And so I think, through some of those decisions, you're able to kind of get a different impression of who these men were, and just what this bond between them was really all about.

You have family members on both sides involved in this film, and in some cases, their insight is invaluable, because it's the only insight or window we have into how Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X felt about each other. So I wanted to ask, was there ever a time when it was difficult for you to confront something or to maintain a balance between that and upholding their legacy or doing right by them and their families?

Yeah, it was definitely something that was heavily taken into consideration. You know, I wanted this film to be balanced between the legacies of both men, the story, and their families. And that's something I'm extremely grateful for. I think Maryum Ali, eldest daughter of Muhammad Ali, Hana Ali, Rahman Ali, Ali's brother, and on Malcolm X's side, Ilyasah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X, they provided a tremendous amount of insight and context to what was important to these men, and to what they saw in each other. And I think that's really important.

People forget that Malcolm X was 17 years older than Cassius Clay at the time. There was definitely a mentorship and a tutelage, if you will, through that relationship. And so it wasn't really challenging, necessarily, but in terms of getting to the issue of betrayal, and whether or not Muhammad Ali ... you know, he said, in his own words, this was his greatest regret, was turning his back on Malcolm X. So I think getting to the issues of betrayal, whether or not Muhammad Ali betrayed Malcolm X, whether or not Malcolm X betrayed the Nation [of Islam], these kind of issues are really complicated, they're complex, and they're really challenging to talk through. I think that was probably the hardest thing. Some of the hardest elements to get through with our interviewees was this issue of betrayal.

Part of that is because these are two beloved heroes, these are two beloved figures in history, in American history and African-American history, and so it's really hard to point the finger or come down on one side or the other. So we really tried to present the story and kind of let the viewers decide with that regard.

'There's a wealth of new information in this film.'

You were talking about avoiding some of what's been done before ... I read that you were a film runner for Spike Lee's 40 Acres and a Mule [Filmworks]. In "Blood Brothers," you show a bit of Denzel Washington as Malcolm X and Will Smith as Muhammad Ali. Did the previous dramatized versions of their lives inform this documentary in any way?

Well, it definitely informed some of the information that we were able to glean and able to use. Spike Lee has been a huge influence in my life and my career, just being able to see and be around him on set. And so that was something that was kind of in the back of my mind. But really, in that segment of the film, we're trying to point to the ways in which the legacies have changed. And how they've, over the course of time, over the course of history, they've been, I don't want to say, diluted, but they've definitely been changed and been made more digestible in a way.

That's something we wanted to really get to the core of, which is, what was this relationship all about, and kind of moving to the side the information that we know already, that we've seen already. And so I avoided a lot of the typical conventions that might be used in a film like this, to really get to the heart of these two men, what they saw in each other, and why this relationship really worked in this short, three-year window between 1962 and 1965.

I read also that Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali were a big part of your upbringing, but you didn't actually know they were such good friends. I honestly didn't know that, either, until this year, seeing "One Night in Miami." You talk about how finding new information is at the core of a successful documentary. What are some things that you learned while making "Blood Brothers," in terms of mining new information?

There's a wealth of new information in this film. I think part of that is because the friendship between them, the relationship, really hasn't been explored. It's been mostly documentaries and publications that deal with their legacies separately. We were actually able to find a great deal of archival material, imagery of them together, of them enjoying these moments together, where you see in the photos this beautiful admiration that the two men had for each other and that they shared. A lot of that, I think, is going to be new to people.

One of the rarest archival clips in the film is actually from 1973. It's Muhammad Ali at his training camp in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania. And he actually says, Judas betrayed Jesus, like Malcolm X betrayed Elijah Muhammad. That's a slightly damning quote, but it is of historical record and it is something that I don't think many people have seen. And I think it really underscores just how Muhammad Ali was feeling at that time. Even though it's years after Malcolm X's assassination, he's still holding onto some of these issues of anger, these feelings of frustration, and he expresses that. And then later on, as people will see when they watch the film, those feelings of anger and frustration, they actually change into feelings of regret and remorse.

I don't want to spoil it, but Muhammad Ali does do some kind of symbolic gestures to make good on the past. And so that's a piece of new information. Also, the film presents a story, the Bruce Hill story of 1963. It's one of the segments in the film that we actually animated, kind of graphic novel animation. And in this moment, journalist Bruce Hill actually catches Cassius Clay at the time, leaving one of the mosques in Chicago. And this is before it's been announced that he's part of the Nation. It's a secret. And so, in this moment, Bruce Hill actually chases him in a car, he's pursuing him in a car, and trying to interview him on the road. This is an article that was written in the Chicago Sun-Times that documents this event. But essentially, it's a chase sequence of a reporter trying to get the story on what is Cassius Clay's actual relationship to the Nation of Islam. And I think this story really underscores just that he was keeping this secret, Cassius Clay, he was pursuing the Nation, but he was aware that it might compromise his career and his public image. I think that's a really important piece of new information that's going to blow people away.

'It's black-and-white, which I think is symbolic...'

Talking about the animation, that part, the chase scene, you have the tomato-red Cadillac driving through this black-and-white scene, and it almost reminded me of comic book noir. Could you talk a little bit about what informed that stylistic choice? I saw where the animation was credited to Jason Scott Jones and you had illustrations credited to Shawn Martinbrough. Where did that idea originate?

Yeah, there's a couple stories in the film that it's documented, but there's nothing to use to really depict it, to show it. The Bruce Hill story from 1963 is one of them, and actually, the first meeting between Malcolm X and Cassius Clay is another one. I feel like these were two incredibly pivotal moments in the journey of both men. And it was really important to be able to bring some type of imagery to be able to depict those scenes. So I chose to go the route of graphic novel animation for several reasons.

First of all, it's black-and-white, which I think is symbolic, and underscores a lot of what's going on in the story. But through graphic novel animation, you can show a scene without necessarily getting into too many details around the actual setup of the scene, so to speak. So there's less, I guess, risks in terms of how you show the actions. And it's really just about the subjects and what's happening in the moment, not necessarily, is it the right time period, or this and that. So the animation is something that I think is really entertaining, but it also gives us the ability to imagine what these moments were really like without taking too much creative liberty.

You also have, in the film, Herb Boyd talking about how the next generation will perceive these two men and the trajectory of their lives. A lot of viewers will have their own different entry points for knowing about Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali and being interested in them as cultural figures. Before learning about their relationship, what was your own personal entry point to the two men and their separate histories?

I'm born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. My parents are Jamaican. I'm of Jamaican descent. So I was actually named after Marcus Garvey. Just to give you a window, both my parents were teachers, they were educators, the public school system in New York City. So knowing who the pioneers were, African-American pioneers, the leaders, thought leaders, their contributions, their sacrifices, has always been something that I've been raised with, raised to know and be aware of. That's part of the reason this was such an exciting opportunity for me, and I'm so grateful for it, because I realize how rare of an opportunity it is, to have a Black director in the position to tell this story.

[It's] something that's been near and dear to me, growing up, and how I carried myself, how I handled myself, how I communicate. So this was something that was right up my alley and very appropriate for me, and also, you know, involved a great deal of discovery. Because I didn't know how close they were. I didn't understand that Malcolm X had this influence on Cassius Clay, that he was really a mentor, and really gave him a voice, and helped hone his voice for who he would eventually become. So I think when you see this film, people will get a different understanding of just what that relationship was, and how powerful the influence of Malcolm X was on Cassius Clay, and the direction he ends up taking later in his life.

'We really had to reimagine the editing process...'

When did this film start production? There have been so many things that have happened over the last year. I was just wondering if events like the pandemic or the George Floyd protests factored in at all, if it affected the production or your decision-making process, creatively.

Yeah, absolutely. The pandemic was a big unforeseen X-factor challenge for this one. We started production in November of 2019, principal photography. And we finished that February 2020, like the end of February. And so right when we finished filming, the country, the world, locked down. So, for a year and a half thereafter, we had been editing and working on this film against the backdrop of the George Floyd protests, the insurrection at the Capitol building, during all these moments. We were siloed, in isolation, essentially, but working on the film, and editing.

We really had to reimagine the editing process, how we edit. Typically, we'd be in a room together, the editors, the producers. We'd be having really complicated conversations about how to depict certain things. And so we really had to do all of that remotely, which definitely had an effect on the process, extended the process. But just, mentally, it was also a huge challenge, watching all these things happen, while I'm dealing with this type of subject matter.

In many ways, there are a lot of parallels to what was going on the '60s at the time, at this exact time period, to what was happening right outside. So I really tried to stay strong and draw inspiration from Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, to stay focused literally on this project, and to getting it to its endpoint, to completion. But it was definitely a challenge, and part of that challenge was making sure that I really stayed focused on the core story of the film, of this relationship. Because there was definitely a temptation to go outside of that and try to address what was happening in the street and try to address what was happening in D.C. And really, all of those undertones are there in the film, but we really had to stay focused on the core relationship.

"Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali" is currently streaming on Netflix.