Muhammad Ali’s daughter Maryum Ali, 53, and Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz, 59, both appear in Marcus A. Clarke’s Blood Brothers: Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, the new Netflix documentary about their historic three-year friendship and falling out. Both women are eminent in their own right, following in their fathers’ crusading footsteps, and both wrote books about them.
Ali (May May to her friends) has worked as a rapper, stand-up comedian, regional manager for the Los Angeles Mayor's Office of Gang Reduction & Youth Development, spokesperson for the Parkinson Alliance and, in the 2016 A&E series 60 Days In, an undercover reporter pretending to be an inmate in an Indiana jail.
Shabazz, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor, helps at-risk youth through Ilyasah Shabazz Enterprises and is a trustee of the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center — in the building where her father was assassinated. Sony Pictures Television is developing a series based on her books X: A Novel and The Awakening of Malcolm X.
Ali and Shabazz shared with AARP their thoughts and emotions about their dads’ impact.
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What's distinctive about this documentary?
Maryum Ali: I've seen myriad documentaries on Malcolm X, and been in some. This film explores something that really hasn't been talked about as a focal point, which is the friendship of my dad and Malcolm X, the multifaceted dynamics of these two men. Because it's a sore spot for a lot of people who love my father and Malcolm X — them not being friends anymore after three years. It's something people really like to talk about. But, you know, it's a part of history. And I think the film does a really great job in looking at their backstory and setting a context for it.
What brought them together, and what pulled them apart?
Ali: They both came to the Nation of Islam, looking for answers to their divine purpose, the spiritual yearning they both had. My father had, actually, his first exposure to Islam at 16 years old, when he saw a cartoon about a Muslim trying to pray and the slave master not allowing him. That sparked something in him. And about three years before he met Malcolm X, he was studying Islam. But once he met Malcolm, he became such a dynamic mentor for him. They loved each other as two men on the same kind of path and journey.
Ilyasah Shabazz: What brought them together was their search for their identity. The film shows these two young, beautiful men, and having the opportunity to come together and find that sense of purpose in one another — with Malcolm being Muhammad Ali's minister and mentor.
But they broke when Malcolm X criticized Nation of Islam's leader Elijah Muhammad, and Ali sided with Elijah.
Ali: My father saying ill words about him was not right. It wasn't righteous, and he really regretted speaking against Malcolm. But hindsight is 20/20. You know, in retrospect, he was a 22-year-old man who was dedicated to the Nation and Elijah Muhammad at that time.
Shabazz: That's right. Another great thing was that my father was strategic. With Muhammad Ali being world champion heavyweight boxer — for the first time in the 1960s, to see a Black man on such a pedestal would allow young people to see someone who looked like them saying, “I am the greatest. I am pretty. I am wonderful. I am all of these great things!” And saying it with Muhammad Ali's integrity and the values that he represented.
Do you think that's what it takes to change society — the power of public figures like your fathers?
Ali: J. Edgar Hoover definitely thought so — he feared a “Black messiah,” and that's how he viewed Malcolm X.
Shabazz: Our heroes were murdered, thrown in jail, assassinated.
Ali: And Hoover saw that power, that charisma that Malcolm had, even beyond Elijah Muhammad. He was a master articulator of the methods and the strategies used by the American government to control and oppress and exploit African Americans. It gave them dignity, a love for themselves, made them want to know their ancestry, their heritage. All of a sudden, Black was not negative anymore. And that was the power of the way Malcolm X delivered his presentation.
Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and the Nation had a different, more aggressive style than Martin Luther King Jr. Do you think both were needed to push society forward — kind of like a good cop-bad cop technique?
Shabazz: Malcolm, Dr. King, Muhammad Ali, Frederick Douglass — they weren't bad cop. They weren't good cop. They were human beings fighting against injustice, because they believed in our collective humanity. My father was only in his 20s when the world learned of him, and he was 39 when he was politically assassinated [as was Martin Luther King Jr.]. He was a young man who sacrificed a lot for what he believed in, and I'm going to assume it's the reason why so many young people continue to post about Malcolm in social media today.
What would your fathers think of Black Lives Matter?
Shabazz: Black Lives Matter is a new term, but an old concept. I think they would be proud of that. But they would want folks to look at policies, like redlining, and all different kinds of infrastructure that have injustice built into them. So we have to go from talking about it to really being active. I think those men would say, “BLM is great. But now let's not fall for those traps that make us hate each other, and let's clean up our neighborhoods and do what we need to do.” We have to be in whatever lane we're good at, and whatever our strengths or talents are, to be active in trying to change these policies. This is not the time to be asleep right now in this country.
Is it important to have family members involved in telling your families’ stories?
Ali: Ilyasha and I know our families better than most — the real essence and the heartbeat in the spirit of our fathers. So it's important that our voices are in these kind of films. It's important for the family lens to be involved in this kind of project. I think they did a good job.
Tim Appelo covers entertainment and is the film and TV critic for AARP. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at Amazon, video critic at Entertainment Weekly, and a critic and writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV, The Village Voice and LA Weekly.