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A Critical Review of “Blood Brothers” on Netflix

Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali with their children - a still from the Netflix documentary Blood Brothers

As is the usual trend within capitalist dominated popular culture, the power structure takes every opportunity to shape the history and perspectives of the people its subjugating. Their effectiveness at achieving this objective cannot be disputed. Most people today have been socialized to strongly prefer entertainment forms of stimuli and interaction over intellectual study and critical analysis developing skills. In fact, many people today will speak openly against the need and/or desire to study much of anything.

The Netflix produced documentary “Blood Brothers – Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali” is the latest example of their efforts to exploit our unwillingness to critically study our own history in ways that would force us to learn to think outside of the paradigms that they provide for us. Following on the heels of the 2020 Netflix documentary “Who Killed Malcolm X”, Netflix’s “Blood Brothers” explores the development of the personal relationship between Malcolm X and Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali and the ultimate destruction of that personal relationship. Starting with Malcolm’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz and Muhammad Ali’s brother Rahman Ali, a stream of scholars, historians, petti-bourgeoisie activists (Reverend Al Sharpton), and former activists (Peter Bailey), are interviewed to provide insight on Malcolm and Ali’s personal histories and the relationship between the two of them.

For people who are familiar with Malcolm and Ali, there isn’t an awful lot happening in this Netflix documentary that you haven’t heard and seen before, but from Netflix and capitalism’s perspective, that’s essentially their point. They are never attempting to actually educate anyone with these documentaries. Instead, what they desire to do is paint a picture of our history which defangs it, removing the militancy, while luring us in with plenty of sentimentality and a subtle suggestion that all this militant talk gets in the way of our being able to “all just get along.”

Examples of the above paragraph are plenty in this Netflix documentary. The relationship between Malcolm and Ali is portrayed as a personal relationship. A friendship gone bad. This would make sense if it wasn’t for the undeniable fact that their relationship wouldn’t have ever happened if it wasn’t for our struggle for African dignity and forward progress. It was that reality that produced Malcolm, Ali, and the Nation of Islam where they met. So, despite the effort by Netflix to advance the capitalist individualistic line of interpreting everything we do, there is no material basis for defining their relationship as just consisting of their two personalities. The individualism is continued throughout the dialogue when the gentleman who was interviewed (multiple times) dressed in the Nation of Islam “Fruit of Islam” uniform says that Malcolm “chose himself” while Ali “chose the Honorable Elijah Muhammad” as his explanation for why their relationship went bad. The belief that Malcolm went his own individual path when he left the Nation of Islam has been repeated so often, covertly and overtly, that there is no way you will convince us it is an accident. Unfortunately, for people who are not active in organized struggle, their perspective of the world is through an individualistic vision because that’s all they have to work with so that trick resonates with them, but any serious examination of Malcolm’s life demonstrates how absurd that analysis is. Even in the Netflix documentary when it makes the point of highlighting how hurt Malcolm was when he ran into Ali in Ghana (shortly after Malcolm had left the Nation of Islam), and Ali had rebuked and dismissed him, the portrayal of Malcolm’s individual alienation is inaccurate. The film makes the point of repeating a statement Malcolm allegedly made after leaving the awkward face to face with Ali while Malcolm was in a car with Maya Angelou and others. According to the Netflix documentary, Malcolm said “I’ve lost so much!”  And this was displayed during the film to paint the picture of a completely dejected Malcolm, yet the truth is Malcolm didn’t respond by doing what people tend to do when they feel alienated, isolated, and painted into an individualistic corner. Malcolm didn’t spiral into drug use, or drinking, or any other unfortunate direction. Instead, he ramped up his political work. He formalized the creation of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He further built important relationships with revolutionary Pan-Africanist leaders on the continent of Africa like Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Ture. In those 11 months after he was snubbed by Ali he did what we would argue was his most important work.

And, we recognize that many people would probably disagree with that last sentence because most of how their development of an organization has taken place is articulated through that same individualistic bourgeoisie vision. Rahman Ali, Muhammad Ali’s brother, said it during the Netflix documentary; the problem was the personal relationship between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad and Eljah’s personal relationships with the women he had babies with that Malcolm exposed to the public. Personal/individual, blah, blah, blah. As Kwame Ture was often fond of saying, the contradictions of capitalism are obvious for all to see!”  Even within this same documentary, scholar Todd Boyd contradicts this individualistic and tired portrayal of the split between Malcolm and Elijah, even if he wasn’t aware he was doing it, when he says the problem was really a divergence of ideas.”  This is probably the most critical statement in the entire documentary because it is absolutely correct in stating that Malcolm’s evolution as a revolutionary Pan-Africanist exceeded what he had learned in the Nation of Islam and this is the primary reason for the split, not the babies born out of wedlock. We understand the confusion here and Malcolm himself made a terrible error that compounded this confusion when he made the accusation about the babies public. As we have stated often, we should never do police work for them and unwittingly, Malcolm did just that when he made that statement, but we will come back to that point about police shortly. For now, its important to also add that another example of the rampant individualism is the way history is projected in the documentary (and in everything capitalist). The Fruit of Islam uniform wearing African in the documentary makes the statement that Malcolm learned “everything he knew from Elijah Muhammad.”  This statement has been repeated often during the period of 1964 when Malcolm was hunted and in the almost 60 years since his assassination. Its another subtle effort to make our interpretation of history individualistic instead of collective. No one person, no matter how great, is responsible for everything anyone knows. The Universal Negro Improvement Association, the African Blood Brotherhood, and other organizations had as much to do with the intellectual development of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm’s father Earl Little (which obviously would have had a triggering effect of permitting Malcolm even to hear Elijah Muhammad’s teachings) so its insane to give Elijah Muhammad all of the credit for Malcolm’s awakening. Of course, this happens because for Netflix, and capitalism, they wish to make us believe that since we are not Elijah Muhammad, we cannot have the type of influence over anyone like he allegedly had over Malcolm, etc., and so therefore, there is no use for us to even try. The truth of course is that the masses make history, not individuals so we all play a role in everyone’s development, all the time. Malcolm’s evolution beyond the Nation of Islam was much more than just an individualistic venture on his part. It was part and parcel of his exposure to our international African liberation movement. That’s why its so symbolic that the statement that got him initially suspended by Elijah Muhammad was the statement he made about John F. Kennedy’s assassination where he used the analogy of U.S. imperialism in the Congo, Central Africa, to make the point about “chickens coming home to roost.”  No where in what Elijah Muhammad was saying was there a connection to what was happening in the Congo. That was 100% Malcolm’s evolving consciousness which was fueled by his growing understanding and commitment to our revolutionary Pan-African movement.

The most disgraceful element of this documentary was its dismissal of the role of the U.S. government in sabotaging the relationship between Malcolm and Muhammad Ali, Malcolm and Elijah, and our entire movement. The documentary spends no more than 60 seconds talking about the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and its counter intelligence program and even during those few seconds, they talk about the FBI as if they were casual observers who was simply rooting for friction to develop within the Nation of Islam. The truth is the FBI orchestrated the dissension that took place surrounding Malcolm. The FBI’s own files illustrated that they had high level informants within the Nation of Islam who’s primary role was to disrupt communication between Malcolm and Elijah and to create distrust between them. The FBI memo from director J. Edgar Hoover just days after Malcolm was assassinated spoke of a financial reward for the work of these informants with a congratulatory theme for their efforts to completely sabotage the work Malcolm was doing (that they manipulated the Nation of Islam to do their work for them). And, to add insult to injury, the people who put this Netflix documentary together had the complete disrespect for the masses of African people to even place John Ali, the man who was pretty much without question the FBI’s highest ranking informant in the Nation of Islam, in the documentary. He was the guy who was the National Secretary who played goalie in preventing Malcolm’s effort to communicate directly with Elijah Muhammad while filling Muhammad’s head with lies about Malcolm’s intentions. He’s also the same guy who gave the press conference after Malcolm’s house was bombed on February 14, 1965, accusing Malcolm of placing his wife and daughters in danger by setting the fire to the house himself. All of this and much more and the directors didn’t ask Ali a single question during the documentary about his role in any of it. In fact, the only semi-journalistic question they asked him is why he thought Malcolm was assassinated to which a fourth grader could have provided a more articulate answer. Absolutely disgraceful.

Finally, the documentary makes the point towards the end, through Todd Boyd, of stating that Muhammad Ali’s legacy of resistance i.e. refusing to be inducted into the U.S. military to fight in Vietnam, had been whitewashed through his role in the 1996 Olympics, etc. What they don’t mention is that from the time of Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975, when the Nation of Islam was dismantled by Elijah’s heir apparent son Warith Deen Mohammad and Muhammad Ali began practicing Sunni Islam (and not the Nation of Islam’s brand of Black nationalist Islam), until Ali’s death in 2016, Ali made no public pronouncements about our struggle for liberation. His physical challenges are noted, but even his actions during that period i.e. the 96 Olympics, meeting with U.S. presidents, etc., contrasted with any type of independent African liberation stances. The point there is the most potent weapon against the individualistic interpretation of our history is the advancement of our mass struggle for justice and the need for everyone to belong to organizations fighting for our liberation. If more of us had that focus, we would understand clearly that we cannot depend upon our enemies to properly teach our history. Its our enemy’s job to misrepresent our history as they did with Ali those last 41 years of his life post-Nation of Islam. Its also their job to present Malcolm as a sad lesson in isolation, something none of us would ever wish to emulate. And, because so few of us explore our history on our own, we don’t realize how rich Malcolm’s life was. None of us wish to exit the planet the way Malcolm was unfortunately forced to exit, but that day in February 1965 will never define his legacy. African people are shot down all day everyday so clearly, that’s not why so many people know who Malcolm X is. Its that rich legacy of his courage and struggle for our dignity that inspires us to respect him and its that which our enemies work overtime to dim in our consciousness.

You will never find us discouraging anyone from watching and reading anything. Watch the documentary, but what we will tell you is you are ill-responsible if all you know about Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, the Nation of Islam, and our African liberation movement is what you learn from these documentaries and motion pictures. There is so much information out here at our fingertips that anyone who doesn’t pursue it to make that your foundation, not Netflix, is really just resigned to remaining in the slave mentality that they joyfully target to produce these projects in order to ensure we continue to stay in that mentality.

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Ahjamu Umi is revolutionary organizer with the All African People's Revolutionary Party, adviser, and liberation literature author.

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