Professor lands documentary deal with Netflix for book

Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X during the Civil Rights Movement. The two were close friends until their falling out in the 60’s. // Photo courtesy of nbcnews.com

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests for the past year and a half, we often draw connections to the Civil Rights movements of the 60’s. But typically, we consider the movements of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to have been the most powerful moments of the time, and don’t typically consider sports to have played a major role in the cultural emancipation of the African American Race.

However, Johnny Smith, professor of Sports History at the School of History and Sociology at Tech, has drawn an unlikely connection between the friendship, and later falling out, of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. His book provides a backstory for the strong, but tumultuous, friendship and brotherhood between the two, from its start to its ultimate demise over time, and has recently been adapted by Netflix into a documentary.

When asked how it feels to have his book transformed into a Netflix documentary, Smith responded, “It’s just surreal. I walked into the giant warehouse, and it just hit me that the film set, this crew of a dozen people, they 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 is undoubtedly in the history and sociological impact of sports, his book goes far deeper than analyzing Muhammad Ali’s illustrious boxing career.

Instead, it analyzes the impact of Muhammad Ali on the struggle for Black freedom, and his strained relationship with the famed Malcolm X. “It’s not just a sports story. It’s a political story. It’s a story about the Black Freedom Struggle,” said Smith. 

“Studying the intertwining forces of sport, race, and politics offers a way to think about the creation of Muhammad Ali as a cultural force and the importance of Muhammad Ali in Malcolm X’s life. When people watch this documentary on Netflix, they’re going to see a story that they probably didn’t know.” The documentary goes far deeper than any analysis on the life of Muhammad Ali would ever go, instead analyzing parts of life which many Americans find uncomfortable to recall. His demonization for joining the Nation of Islam, for rejecting Martin Luther King’s goals of a unified, equal America, and for turning his back on Malcolm X, are all points which are called to attention in Smith’s book, allowing the reader to gain a truly deep understanding of the man Muhammad Ali would become over the course of his life and career. “Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali are two of the most iconic and revered African Americans of the twentieth century, and yet the depths of their friendship and the influence they had on each other is largely unknown,” said Clarke in a Netflix press release.

“Blood Brothers provides a deeper understanding into what made these two men tick, 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 about analyzing the impact of historical events through the eyes of famed historical figures, and has previously covered topics such as race, gender and politics.

But this is the first time his research will have reached an audience at this scale, allowing his work to become more than simply a scholars take on history.

“Participating in this project gave me a unique opportunity to transform my research into an original cinematic story, one that has the potential to reach an audience much larger than the readership of my book,” said Smith.

“When historians and filmmakers work together, the past comes to life on screen. I may be biased — okay, I am biased — but I think it’s an Oscar-worthy documentary.”

The documentary was recently posted to Netflix on Sept. 9, and is available to watch for all Netflix subscription holders. The book that the documentary was based off of can be found for purchase at your local bookstore.