To Randy Roberts, the tragic friendship between Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali is more than a compelling story from the American past. As with much of history, the past can provide a useful lens for thinking about today’s world.
“I think history is endlessly relevant, and the story of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X shows that. I hope it helps people ask why we see the same issues continuing to cycle through our history,” said Roberts, Distinguished Professor of History and 150th Anniversary Professor.
Roberts’ book, “Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X,” is being adapted for television.
“Blood Brothers,” published in 2016 by Basic Books, uses archival materials and previously overlooked FBI files to offer a nuanced look at the intense relationship between two giants of the American civil rights movement and the tragedy of their falling out. The book tells the story of a friendship built on secrets and surrounded by violence, as a young Cassius Clay balances sport and politics on his way to becoming Muhammad Ali.
“Boxing is violent. The Nation of Islam was violent. The police and the civil rights movement were violent,” Roberts said. “Among this, these two proud, articulate Black men form a dynamic relationship. From the first, I saw in this story the makings of an American ‘Macbeth.’ It’s about violence, certainly, but also rivalry, betrayal and all too human fragility.”
The televised adaptation of “Blood Brothers” will be written by Charles Murray, whose screenwriting resume includes “Luke Cage,” “Sons of Anarchy,” and “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.” Executive producers include Murray through Raising Kane Films, NBA star Carmelo Anthony of Creative 7, and Shelby Stone of Narrative Film Group. The eight-part limited series, a production of A+E Studios, will be a dramatic rendering of book’s story.
“It’s my plan to reach out to members of both families to create the most well-rounded show I can, and it’s my hope that the final product gives the audience insight that they hadn’t had,” Murray said to Deadline regarding his creative vision for the show.
Roberts co-wrote “Blood Brothers” with Purdue alumnus Johnny Smith (class of 2011), who is now the Julius C. “Bud” Shaw Professor of Sports History at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Smith and Roberts will serve as consulting producers for the series, offering historical insight as the dramatized version comes to life.
Roberts has authored more than 20 nonfiction books on historically significant figures from American sports, the military, and pop culture. His subjects have included John Wayne, Mickey Mantle, and Charles Lindbergh, though boxing features frequently. Roberts has published biographies of Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Jack Dempsey and often teaches courses on sports and race.
When asked what “Blood Brothers” might offer those conversations, he said that, as with most moments in history, it’s about the questions more than the answers.
“More than anything, I want this story to prompt people to ask questions,” he said. “It’s no news that these things have happened before, but why does it keep happening? Why haven’t things changed? What has been overlooked?”
The adaptation from print to television will help those questions reach a larger audience, which, Roberts says, has always been the main ambition behind his work as an educator and writer.
“One thing I’ve always tried to do with my career is to reach people,” Roberts said. “In my classes at Purdue, I have a good-sized audience. A book makes that class bigger; a documentary makes it even bigger. A scripted series increases accessibility even more.”
Roberts is no rookie when it comes to working with television. He has appeared or consulted on more than 50 television documentaries and films for the History Channel, ESPN Classic, HBO, BBC, PBS, E!TV, and the ABC, CBS, and NBC networks. As a pop culture historian, he often is quoted in national media and appears on nationally syndicated radio and media. He has served as consultant and on-camera expert for the Emmy-Award winning series “10 Days that Unexpectedly Changed America.”
Roberts’ most recent book, “War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War,” was published in March 2020 by Basic Books. “War Fever” tells the story of a country fighting battles abroad and at home as Americans face World War I and the 1918 Spanish flu.