In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests over the past year and a half, we often make connections with the civil rights movements of the 1960s. But generally, we consider the movements of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to have been the most powerful moments of the time, and do not generally consider that sport played a major role in the cultural emancipation of the African American race.
However, Johnny Smith, professor of sports history in the School of History and Sociology at Tech, drew an unlikely connection between the friendship, and later the breakup, of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. Her book provides a backstory for the strong, but tumultuous friendship and brotherhood between the two, from its beginnings to its ultimate end over time, and was recently adapted by Netflix into a documentary.
When asked what it was like to see his book turned into a Netflix documentary, Smith replied, “It’s just surreal. I walked into the giant warehouse and was struck by how the film set, this crew of a dozen, were all there for me, and they were all there because of the work that Randy and I did together.
While Smith’s area of expertise undoubtedly lies in the history and sociological impact of sport, his book goes far beyond the analysis of Muhammad Ali’s illustrious boxing career.
Instead, he analyzes Muhammad Ali’s impact on the black freedom struggle and his strained relationship with the famous Malcolm X. “It’s not just a sports story. It’s a political story. It’s a story about the struggle for black freedom, ”Smith said.
“Studying the intertwined forces of sport, race and politics offers a way to reflect on the creation of Muhammad Ali as a cultural force and the importance of Muhammad Ali in the life of Malcolm X. When people will watch this documentary on Netflix, they’ll see a story they probably didn’t know. The documentary goes far beyond any analysis of Muhammad Ali’s life, instead analyzing parts of life that many Americans find uncomfortable to remember. His demonization for joining the Nation of Islam, for rejecting Martin Luther King’s goals of a unified and egalitarian America, and for turning his back on Malcolm X, are all points that are highlighted in the book by Smith, enabling the reader to gain a truly profound understanding of the man Muhammad Ali would become in his life and career. “Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali are two of the most iconic and revered African Americans of the twentieth century, yet the depth of their friendship and the influence they have had on each other is largely unknown.” Clarke said in a Netflix press release.
“Blood Brothers provides a better understanding of what motivated these two men, the intense role faith played in their bond, and ultimately how their budding friendship came to an abrupt end.” Smith’s entire life has been devoted to analyzing the impact of historical events through the eyes of famous historical figures, and has previously covered topics such as race, gender, and politics.
But this is the first time that his research has reached an audience on this scale, allowing his work to become more than just a scholar’s look at history.
“Participating in this project has given me a unique opportunity to turn my research into an original cinematic story, which has the potential to reach a much larger audience than my book’s readership,” Smith said.
“When historians and filmmakers work together, the past comes to life on screen. I might be biased – okay, I am biased – but I think this is an Oscar-worthy documentary. ”
The documentary was recently released on Netflix on September 9 and is available to all Netflix subscription holders. The book the documentary is based on can be purchased at your local bookstore.