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'Genius: MLK/X' Offers A Glimpse Of The Lives Of Two Visionary Civil Rights Leaders

National Geographic’s “Genius” series returned for its fourth season earlier this month with “Genius: MLK/X.” The season explores the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X through their “formative years, where they were molded by strong fathers and traumatic injustices, to their rich, parallel stories as they shaped their identities and became the change they wished to see in the world,” according to a series synopsis.

Starring Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Aaron Pierre as King and X, respectively, the eight-episode series explores the civil rights icons as more than the political figures we love and respect.

Audiences will see two young boys who struggled with mental health grow up into powerful and complex men fighting for equality in America. The series provides layered episodes and covers several moments of the icons’ personal lives: X’s humble beginnings and his journey to prison before rising as a minister in the Nation of Islam, and King surviving a suicide attempt at a young age to be a preacher like his father before becoming a leader at the forefront of the civil rights movement.

The series also weaves in their love stories and positions their respective wives, Betty Shabazz (Jayme Lawson) and Coretta Scott King (Weruche Opia), as influential figures in their own right.

“One of the beautiful parts of playing [King] is watching him face adversity and conflict with so much love and grace for himself and the people,” Harrison told HuffPost at the Los Angeles premiere of the series, which was held at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater late last month. “I believe we’re celebrating him because of his choices, and I strive to make better choices and have more faith in myself.”

Harrison as King in
Harrison as King in

Harrison as King in "Genius: MLK/X." The actor described the civil rights icon as a "beacon of light" during the Los Angeles premiere of the series.

Harrison began to get a bit emotional as he reflected on being a part of the new season, recalling his journey to fame. Harrison has also starred in movies such as “Chevalier,” “Waves” and “Luce.”

“It’s been a dream — no pun intended,” Harrison said. “When you’re a kid in school in New Orleans in a small city, in the South specifically, and you’re faced with internalized racism and you’re also watching Dr. King, this beacon of light who rose above it all — it’s mind-blowing to think one day you’ll be able to portray somebody like that.”

Though Pierre was raised in London, he shared how he was “very fortunate” to have known about X before portraying him due to his parents.

Pierre as X in
Pierre as X in

Pierre as X in "Genius: MLK/X." During the Los Angeles premiere of the series, the actor said he's "grateful" that his parents taught him about the revolutionary leader.

“My parents educated me about Malcolm X and his importance and legacy, which I’m grateful and lucky for,” Pierre, whose recent credits include “Brother” and “The Underground Railroad,” told HuffPost.

“From there, I began reading his autobiography, Betty Shabazz’s book and Peniel Joseph’s ‘The Sword and the Shield’ book, and then you build from there,” Pierre added. “I was grateful to have a starting point of knowing about him in good depth in my youth.” 

The actors also praised their dialect coach, Jerome Butler, for helping them master the cadences and tones of the historical figures’ voices.

“I found this great phone call between [King] and Lyndon B. Johnson and heard his Southern, casual tone and drawl, so I wanted to lean into that for the at-home voice while also mastering the pastoral, political voice that we all know,” Harrison said. “I was trying to find the nuances and differentiation between the moments before the podium and the podium moments. I wanted to give the audience a little bit of it all and tried to do my best.” 

“Genius: MLK/X” was inspired by Jeff Stetson’s “The Meeting,” a play about an imaginary meeting between King and X. Stetson also wrote the pilot episode of the series and served as an executive producer.

The first episode of the series captures the only time the civil rights visionaries actually met — on March 26, 1964, in Washington, D.C.

Executive producers Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Bythewood said the parallels between X and King were what “struck them” the most when helping build out the story. Damione Macedon and Raphael Jackson Jr., who served as showrunners and co-executive producers of the series, also noted that those similarities were what helped the series come together.

“You have these two young men who grew up separately, with Martin growing up a bit more affluent [and] Malcolm growing up in the rural Midwest, but we continued to find similarities they shared as people,” Macedon told HuffPost. “As two young men, seeing their eyes open to the events, particularly the civil rights movement at that time, was our guiding light.” 

“Genius: MLK/X” premiered its first two episodes on National Geographic on Feb. 1. The series streams weekly on Hulu and Disney+ on Fridays.

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