BLood Brothers director Marcus A Clarke wants to show us a side of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali that we are not familiar with, which is a considerable challenge. The two civil rights icons are the subject of multiple biographies and documentaries, not to mention biopics directed by legends like Spike Lee (Malcolm X) and Michael Mann (Ali). And they were recently portrayed becoming lively and sentimental together in Regina King’s Oscar-nominated film One Night In Miami.
But in her Netflix documentary, Clarke delves into men and their environment, with footage and first-hand accounts from X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz, Ali’s younger brother Rahman, and several others who knew or understood them. the political and social environment in which they found themselves. against.
We get a sense of Malcolm X’s ferocity with words, but also his cuteness and vulnerability between siblings. And then there’s Muhammad Ali – he had a loud mouth too, but as a heavyweight champion, he made the world shake with his rock-hard fists. She was also a soft sponge when it came to learning from a spiritual father figure and a friend like X. “It’s just that they share this admiration and joy between the two of them,” Clarke told the Guardian during a Zoom call from her home in Los Angeles. . “And that’s something I don’t think people have necessarily seen before.”
Blood Brothers, which is produced by Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, adapts Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith’s book on X and Ali’s relationship, drawn from an intense investigation into previous FBI biographies, documents, and surveillance records. . Roberts and Smith also appear in the film. And in an age where authorship and identity have so much meaning and implication, I would be remiss if I did not point out that the two authors are white.
“Whether they are black or white, the research is very valuable,” says Clarke, who was born in Brooklyn to Jamaican parents. Clarke adds that he saw an opportunity to balance Roberts and Smith’s academic work with more intimate accounts from people close to X and Ali, while exploring social and cultural details that the book does not consider to the same extent.
If Roberts and Smith’s book connected the dots to shape the relationship between X and Ali, Clarke’s documentary colors it all with an understanding of what it means to be black in America. He looks at how Muhammad Ali, who was then known as Cassius Clay, would have been transformatively affected by the lynching of Emmett Till, comparing that experience to how young black men today respond to images of police brutality. The documentary also features details about Malcolm X’s parents, who followed Marcus Garvey. The pan-African movement of the black nationalist leader is reflected in X’s own principles, which treat the oppression of blacks and brunettes as a global problem. “These are the basis of who he was,” says Clarke.
There are also musical sections in the document, which focus on how the sounds of Bob Marley figured in the movement, or how the leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, had a career as a calypso singer under the nickname The Charmer. These details may seem out of place in a document about X and Ali, but they are part of the cultural fabric that would nurture and inspire activists. “I tend to believe that our movie has a lot of soul for that reason,” says Clarke. “For blacks, music and storytelling have always been symbiotic. For a long time our story has been told through song. The messages have become songs. “
I can’t help but pay attention to the wall behind Clarke that shows an eye-opening curation of personal history and popular culture. There is a Warhol-like poster of Marilyn Monroe and another for the movie Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. Both flank a large print of Sunday’s Best, the 1941 photograph of young black men on Chicago’s South Side sitting in a Pontiac as they dress for Easter church. That print is mounted right above a framed ticket for the first inauguration of Barack Obama, who spent his formative years on Chicago’s South Side. All of that sits on top of a framed photo of the director’s grandmother.
I’m tracing these details on the wall, in the same way that the filmmaker wades for those cultural signifiers in X and Ali’s life, hoping to come to a deeper understanding of the influences on their work, which tend to undermine the intersection. among the popular. culture and social activism.
Clarke started out as a teenage intern and then production assistant for a company that did television commercials for brands like Pizza Hut and Danone. He worked in the kind of places where hot cheese stretches in slow motion, or a chocolate bar splashes into a puddle of chocolate. “I basically worked for Willy Wonka,” says Clarke. He was also often the only black person in the room or on set at a time when no one was pushing to diversify behind-the-camera talent.
After Eric Garner’s death in police containment, Clarke took advantage of the resources he had to go out on the streets and document the Black Lives Matter protests that shut down New York City, and the material became one of his first short films. : I Can’t Breathe from 2014. “That opened the way for possibilities on how I can start to merge more messages and really say something with the movies I was making,” says Clarke.
He continued to explore the social foundations of southern rap in the Mass Appeal short Trap City and followed rapper TI on a political and activist journey in an episode of the Netflix hip-hop documentary series Rapture. And then it came to Blood Brothers, retelling the story of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali at a time when the power of their activism speaks to the overwhelming pain and anger that followed the murder of George Floyd.
Malcolm X’s words resonate today, says Clarke. He also sees a lesson to be learned from the leader’s tragic aftermath with Ali. Clarke’s documentary delves into the external forces and pressures that caused the rift between X and Ali, subversive influences that the director points out still work today. Consider the scrutiny in Black Lives Matter on how resources are allocated, disinformation spread over protesters by the far right and FBI surveillance of black activists echoing the agency’s Cointelpro tactics to disrupt social movements.
“People who are black and brown, who are trying to achieve something, who have a mission, who feel that they have a purpose for something, they should keep in mind that there will always be forces at work trying to stop, stop or divide them”, Clarke says.
“We need more solidarity. This is what Malcolm was all about. We have the same mission. Whether it is in America, Africa or the Caribbean, wherever black and brown people are, we face the same oppression. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism