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Netflix documentary 'Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali' based on Purdue professor's book

An interview with Purdue professor and pop culture historian Randy Roberts
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Posted at 2:07 PM, Sep 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-07 20:17:56-04

WEST LAFAYETTE — The relationship between Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali — two of the most important figures of the 20th century — will be explored in a new Netflix documentary dropping on Thursday.

The feature-length documentary is inspired by the book “Blood Brothers” written by Purdue University professor and pop culture historian Randy Roberts, and his former cohort, Johnny Smith.

It took Roberts and Smith three years to research, source, and write the nonfiction book about Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali's extraordinary friendship, which was published in 2016.

Now, five years later, the two are seeing much of that work on one of the world's leading streaming services from director Marcus A. Clarke and producer Kenya Barris.

"This is the American Macbeth. It's about love, hate, violence, death, blood. I mean, any emotion you can think about is incorporated into the story of these two men," Roberts said in an interview with WRTV.

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The cover for the Netflix original "Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali." It debuts on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021.

Roberts has been living in Lafayette and teaching at Purdue since 1988. The biggest class he teaches is a course on World War II, but he also teaches a class on the history of sports in America.

The professor has always been interested in sports and boxing, but his interest in Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest boxers in history, traces back to the 1960s when Ali first broke onto the national stage.

"Before Muhammad Ali, baseball players, basketball players, boxers were always supposed to say, 'Oh, the guy I'm playing against or fought against is really good. I'll try to win.' They never talked about politics, they never talked about race, they never talked about religion, and Muhammad Ali changes that. He gives athletes a voice," Roberts explained.

In looking at the life of Ali you have to also look at the relationship he had with one of the most popular and world-known civil rights activists, Malcolm X.

"And I think what I saw is how these two people changed politics in America, and they also changed American sports," Roberts said. "They were very alike. They were both tall, articulate, handsome, vibrant. Kind of the type of person that when they walked into the room, everybody else stopped and stared at them."

To have that kind of austere while simultaneously being known worldwide was an extraordinary fact of their lives.

But in also being — as the title exclaims — blood brothers, Roberts said, it makes them two of the world's most important figures.

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BLOOD BROTHERS: MALCOLM X & MUHAMMAD ALI (L to R) Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali in BLOOD BROTHERS: MALCOLM X & MUHAMMAD ALI.

Naturally, a unique life leads to a unique story. The story of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X's dynamic friendship and its downfall however makes this one especially surreal.

It's a story the world has been going over continually for decades, whether through books or on-screen but it's one where we can never truly understand what happened without "being in the room," Roberts said.

"Sometimes reality is more bizarre and is more intriguing than fiction. In this case, I think that's true," Roberts said.

According to Netflix, the documentary will offer a "fresh perspective." It features never-before-seen footage, interviews with the daughters of both Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, and more.

"The film illuminates their meeting, bonding, and eventual falling out over discord within the leadership of the Nation of Islam," a synopsis from Netflix reads.

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Muhammad Ali (left) and Malcolm X (right)

Roberts said although the book has more detail, of course, the documentary is "fantastic."

"I wouldn't prioritize one over the other one. They're just two different ways of telling the story," he said.

"I don't want to take very much credit for the documentary, other than 'here's our book, here's the sources that we use ... here's the FBI documents, here's this newspaper article,'" Roberts said of his and Smith's consultation on the film. "How it was used was was really a guide by the director Marcus Clarke, who's just a brilliant director."

As a lifelong observer of the life of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, Roberts said he hopes viewers and readers take away there are consequences to choices.

"The history is messy. It's complex. The story is difficult. And people make decisions. In this case, we're talking about life and death decisions," Roberts said. "They loved each other. They saw a future that they would help shape, but circumstances intervened."

Roberts says that certainly, Muhammad Ali regretted what happened with Malcolm X, but he hopes people recognize that people make mistakes and not every choice will be the best one.

As a pop culture historian, Roberts has written over 20 nonfiction books and been a consultant for over 50 documentaries. So although being part of the Netflix documentary wasn't so much a new medium for him, he says the book and project altogether have been the most important one thus far.

"I think this is the biggest story that I've told," Roberts said. "This is the most important of national significance."

WRTV Digital Reporter Shakkira Harris can be reached at shakkira.harris@wrtv.com. You can follow her on Twitter, @shakkirasays.