When Michigan State alumnus of '04 Johnny Smith found out that his book, “Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X” was being turned into a Netflix documentary, he was thrilled to learn that his passion was going to be exposed to even more people.
“We couldn’t be more excited than to have Blood Brothers be with Netflix," Smith said. “I don’t know if there’s a better streaming service right now to have a partnership with that can generate the kind of exposure that Netflix does.”
After Michigan State, Smith received his Master's degree from Western Michigan University in 2006 and his Ph.D. in history from Purdue University in 2011. Currently, he is a Professor of Sports History and Associate Professor of History at Georgia Tech.
The book, co-written by Randy Roberts, focuses on the period in Muhammad Ali’s life while he was still just Cassius Clay. Within the three years of research, both Smith and Roberts realized that Malcolm X was a crucial figure in not only his transformation into Muhammad Ali but his life in general.
While Smith was pursuing his Ph.D., Roberts was his advisor. They knew they wanted to write a book together, they just weren’t sure what it would be about. After going over many book ideas, they finally came back to the story of Muhammad Ali and his friendship with Malcolm X because they knew that this was a compelling story, Smith said.
“They’re two of the most iconic black men in the second half of the twentieth century," Roberts said. “They are two really important people and their relationship was so dynamic ... it had friendship, it had betrayal, it had love, it had blood and death, it was just a really compelling story.”
Their goal for the book was to not only show the unlikely friendship between these American icons but also show that Muhammad Ali was not always viewed as the American hero that everyone knows today. Back in the 1960s, many Americans hated Muhammad Ali and didn’t agree with any of his views, but decades later, only the “sanitized" and "whitewashed" version of him is what people remember, Smith said.
“We wanted to reconstruct the life and times of Cassius Clay and a young Muhammad Ali as Americans interpreted him then, not as his memory had been contorted in the aftermath of the 1996 Olympics,” Smith said.
While Smith has always had an interest in sports history, it was at Michigan State University and especially the African American history class, taught by Professor Pero Dagbovie, where his passion grew. It was in that class where he wrote his first research paper on Muhammad Ali and at the same time, Dagbovie became a mentor to him.
After reading his final paper on Muhammad Ali, Dagbovie said he knew Johnny Smith had a bright future ahead of him. It was the lessons he learned from MSU and Dagbovie that pushed him to further his education and later on write his book, Smith said.
“I carry the lessons I learned at MSU and my professors, in the history courses in particular, with me,” Smith said.
Smith has gone on to write "The Sons of Westwood: John Wooden, UCLA, and the Dynasty That Changed College Basketball," as well as two other books with Roberts called "War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War" and "A Season in the Sun: The Rise of Mickey Mantle."
With this book and documentary, Smith and Roberts hope people start to appreciate how close these two men were. They had a strong relationship and a profound influence on each other that also, unfortunately, was broken by the internal politics of the Nation of Islam, Smith and Roberts said.
However, Smith also said that this is a book that can help people understand racism in America, whether the past, present or future.
“I think it’s important for Americans who are thinking about racism today and racism in our country’s past to think about how understanding these figures helps us better confront the story of race in America and the broader black freedom struggle,” Smith said.
The Netflix feature documentary is directed by Marcus A. Clarke and is currently available to watch on Netflix.
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