Towering civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, both assassinated at the age of 39, met briefly on March 26, 1964 at the U.S. Capitol, where they were both present in support of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. While their paths intersected only once before their untimely deaths, the Nat Geo series “Genius: MLK/X” presents their extraordinary lives in tandem, despite their famously opposing ideologies.
“So often we’re told you have to choose between Martin and Malcolm: Who do you identify with? Who do you want to follow?” executive producer Gina Prince-Bythewood said during a post-screening conversation at the “MLK/X” premiere on Jan. 29. “But we knew that they were both integral to the movement. They both had the same goal — they just said different means of going about it. And the more that we got into the research, we realized how close they were coming towards the end of their lives to each other.”
Imagine Entertainment’s Brian Grazer, one of many executive producers spearheading the “Genius” anthology, has previously helped select Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso and Aretha Franklin as subjects of the series. Of landing on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X as the latest “geniuses” and telling their stories parallel to one another, Grazer told Variety, “It lets the audience identify with either — or the middle. And it becomes a palpable experience for viewers because they get really, really involved.”
Ahead of the series’ Feb. 1 release, the premiere of “MLK/X” included a screening of episode one, “Graduation,” which tracks the journeys of the titular figures from boyhood through young adulthood. The episode includes pivotal moments throughout their formative years, from violent Ku Klux Klan attacks targeting Malcolm X’s family to the suicide attempt of a guilt-ridden King after the death of his grandmother.
“The first hour that people see tonight is their origin story,” Prince-Bythewood told Variety on the red carpet, alongside husband and fellow EP Reggie Rock Bythewood. “You get to see Malcolm and Martin as children, and what formed them, what pushed them to build them into their geniuses. So that’s something we’re really excited about.”
The adult versions of MLK and Malcolm X are brought to life by rising stars Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Aaron Pierre, who immersed themselves in an extensive research process to step into the shoes of such influential Black activists.
Pierre told Variety he relied on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and listened to the iconic speech “The Ballot or the Bullet”: “There is arguably a considerable amount of misinformation about Malcolm X. I’m hopeful that this series gives people insight into ways that he operated from a place of love and light, truly, and he never advocated for people to seek out physical confrontation and physical engagement.”
In testament to a convincing performance by the British actor, murmurs and gasps filled the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre when Pierre spoke for the first time in front of the audience: “Oh yeah, I’m from South London,” he clarified to the shocked crowd.
Harrison, too, had an accent to master. He told Variety, “I was so intimidated…I called my dialect coach and we just went through a few speeches and we found some phone calls as well with him and LBJ — and he sounded really casual. So then I started deciding that there’s two voices, you know, there’s that home voice, there’s this pastoral voice, there’s this political voice — and trying to figure out what the nuances and differentiations were.”
Notably, Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz, the wives of the civil rights leaders, are not relegated as mere side characters in “MLK/X.” Their inner lives are on full display throughout the series, including an entire episode dedicated to their perspectives.
Weruche Opia, who plays Coretta, told Variety, “A lot of people don’t realize that the men wouldn’t have been who they were without the women beside them.”
Meanwhile, Jamye Lawson plays the lesser-known Shabazz. Lawson said of her character, “It was very important for me to give her her name back. Most of us, if we know anything, refer to her as ‘Malcolm’s wife.’ It was time for her to have her full name and that’s something that I really wanted to do — bring her out of from behind him to being his equal. And showing her intelligence and her curiosity and her dreams and her hopes or aspirations.”
As many of the creatives behind the show stressed throughout the night, “MLK/X” aims to showcase the multifaceted humanity of these larger-than-life historical figures. Reggie Rock Bythewood offered the audience a fitting introduction to the series before episode one commenced: “To everyone who feels, or ever felt, that you need to choose between Malcolm and Martin: We give you ‘MLK/X.’”
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