Many people remember Muhammad Ali, who died in 2016, at 74, as the benign, indomitable champion at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics who, hands shaking from Parkinson’s syndrome, lit the ceremonial torch before a worldwide broadcast audience of 3½ billion.
America had sanctified and sanitized Ali. It had forgotten that some three decades earlier he was the most vilified athlete in the country, after he refused to be inducted into the armed forces because of his religion and his opposition to the Vietnam War.
“The image [of Ali] portrayed to the public since 1996 is false,” says University of Southern California professor Todd Boyd, in Marcus A. Clarke’s provocative and moving Netflix documentary “Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali.” “They’ve managed to edit out all those things that were controversial.” Among those awkward aspects that have been airbrushed away is Ali’s relationship with Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam firebrand and civil rights leader — a three-year friendship that ended in betrayal and death.
Destiny, Clarke suggests, brought them together. Born Malcolm Little in 1925 to parents who were activist followers of the Pan Africanist Marcus Garvey, Malcolm was 6 when his father died horrifically, crushed by a trolley car in what was officially called an accident but which many suspected was the work of racist thugs. His family shattered, Malcolm grew up in foster homes and ended up in Roxbury, as a dope dealer and pimp.
Convicted of robbery, he spent his imprisonment educating himself. He was drawn to the Nation of Islam, also known as the Black Muslims, an organization that preached Black independence and separatism and demanded stringent rectitude from its members and was embraced by its leader Elijah Muhammad, The Messenger, himself an acolyte of Garvey. By 1954 Malcolm had become the Nation of Islam’s charismatic spokesman.
Ali, born Cassius Clay in 1942 in Jim Crow-era Louisville, Ky., had also been traumatized by a racist murder. In 1955, the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till, in Mississippi, horrified Ali; and he grew increasingly aware of the precarious circumstances of being a Black person in America. He would first learn of the Nation of Islam in 1959 while in Chicago for an amateur bout when a member handed him the record “A White Man’s Heaven Is a Black Man’s Hell,” performed by Louis X, the future Louis Farrakhan. Ali would play the recording over and over. His sympathy with the cause intensified after he won a gold medal in boxing in the 1960 Rome Olympics and was still refused service at a segregated diner after he returned home.
By the time he first met Malcolm X, in 1962, Ali already knew about him and was in awe. Malcolm, on the other hand, had never heard of the boxer, who was by then making a stir in the world of sports. Despite the difference in age and occupations, the two hit it off, Malcolm attracted to the younger man’s electric appeal, spiritual potential, and exuberance, Ali in turn drawn to Malcolm’s wisdom, strength, and moral guidance.
Each benefited from the other. Ali raised the profile and the credibility of the Nation of Islam, and for a while boosted Malcolm’s standing with Elijah Muhammad. In 1964, before Ali’s first heavyweight championship bout against the fearsome Sonny Liston, Malcolm visited Ali in his dressing room. He prayed with him and convinced him that he would win a fight in which he was seen as a hopeless underdog. His victory that night was a PR boon for Elijah Muhammad, who took on Ali as his new acolyte.
But Malcolm by then had lost favor with the Messenger, having learned of the leader’s sexual and financial improprieties. Probably his last hope was the support of Ali. But Ali denied him, and on Feb. 21, 1965, Malcolm X was murdered by gunmen from the Nation of Islam.
An industry of movies, books, and other media has sprung up about Muhammad Ali and to a lesser extent Malcolm X. The estimable Ken Burns will be weighing in with his own four-part, eight-hour “Muhammad Ali” on PBS, Sept. 19-22. The stories of these two towering figures touch something deep, nagging, and unresolved in the American psyche, a nexus of the best and the worst, the hopeful and despairing. Their lives are tragic, even biblical in their resonance.
“Destiny can take your best friend as an instrument to cause you harm and your worst enemy to do you good,” says Ali in a 1965 video. “Right? Judas betrayed Jesus. Malcolm X betrayed Elijah Muhammad.” And Muhammad Ali betrayed Malcolm X?
“Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali” can be streamed on Netflix beginning Sept. 9. Go to netflix.com.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.