Smith’s Book ‘Blood Brothers’ Adapted Into New Netflix Documentary

Film still from 'Blood Brothers: Muhammad Ali & Malcolm X' on Netflix

Posted August 19, 2021

What’s it like to have your book turned into a Netflix documentary? Johnny Smith, the Julius C. "Bud" Shaw Professor of Sports History in the School of History and Sociology, can tell you all about it. 

The Netflix adaptation of his award-winning book Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammed Ali and Malcolm X, co-authored with Randy Roberts at Purdue University, will be released on Sept. 9. (It’s also in development for a scripted series at A+E, but no production or release dates have been set.) As the countdown to the Netflix debut gets closer, Smith admits that he has been eagerly refreshing the trailer page, awaiting the moment he can share it with the world. 

“It’s just surreal,” said Smith, who reflected that sitting down for his on-camera interview for the documentary in Los Angeles was one of the most thrilling days of his career. “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.”

The Netflix documentary follows Smith’s book and focuses on the rise and fall of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X’s tumultuous friendship between 1960 and 1965. Directed by Marcus A. Clarke and produced by Jason Perez and black-ish creator Kenya Barris, the film includes interviews with Smith and Roberts as well as Malcolm X’s daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, and Muhammad Ali’s brother, Rahman Ali. It reveals never before seen archival footage of the famous boxer and civil rights activist and animates private moments between them — moments that Smith and Roberts recreated by sifting through the FBI surveillance of the two men.

“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."

Although Ali may be regarded as a hero today, the documentary explores a time when he was also vilified for being a member of the Nation of Islam, for rejecting the integrationist goals of the civil rights movement, and for turning his back on Malcolm X, someone who he once referred to as a brother. 

“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.”

For Smith, providing a deeper understanding of the significance of these historical figures is what his scholarship is all about. As a professor in the Sports, Society, and Technology program in the School of History and Sociology, he examines U.S. history and culture through the lens of sports, including topics of race, gender, and politics. Now, the new documentary on Netflix allows him to share that passion with viewers around the world. 

“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.”

Watch the trailer for Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammed Ali, and don’t miss the full documentary on Netflix on Sept. 9!

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