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‘Genius: MLK/X’ Review: Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Aaron Pierre Play Civil Rights Icons Respectfully Compared and Contrasted

At some point in middle school or high school, most people were exposed to two different types of rudimentary essay-writing. There’s the five-paragraph essay, that goes, intro/thesis-body-body-body-conclusion. And there’s the compare-and-contrast essay, in which you start with two seemingly opposed subjects and unify them by juxtaposing the ways they’re different, but also the ways in which they’re similar. From a distance of decades it’s easy to mock both essay structures, but they’re both incredibly useful ways of teaching young writers to approach complicated topics.

I’m not sure if the new season of National Geographic’s Genius anthology is the most ambitious compare-and-contrast essay every written, but MLK/X is at least a generally well-intentioned illustration of both pros and cons of the format.

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Over eight hours, Genius: MLK/X uses a frequently on-the-nose back-and-forth approach to the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Malcolm X (Aaron Pierre), one that allows the series’ writers, starting with Jeff Stetson, to take two men who have been painted into the corner of being iconic ideological opposites and explore their philosophical journeys to surprising commonalities.

It’s reductive, but it gives the new Genius season a workable structure that the Pablo Picasso and Aretha Franklin seasons frequently lacked. There are complicated ideas that the structure lets Genius: MLK/X begin to reconcile, plus the writers are able to extend the structure to Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz as well.

What you get in MLK/X, though, is a predictable result: The series is a decent introductory perspective on what divided and united the two men, but an increasingly superficial examination of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X as individuals.

The series begins in 1964 with the only known meeting between them, a random passing at the Capitol in the moments leading up to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They pose for pictures and engage in amiable small talk, but it isn’t an epic summit or anything. Both men are aware that even this limited interaction runs the risk of alienating their followers or of being misconstrued in the press.

From there, it’s a more straightforward chronology, shifting back and forth between literally or thematically similar chapters in their respective lives. At every single moment, you can see a thought process at work as the writers build out the two parallel storylines.

For two episodes of character-building, Genius is on solid footing, showing how Young Malcolm and Young Martin’s respective strong-willed fathers (Lennie James as MLK Sr. and Gbenga Akinnagbe as Earl Little) shaped their early political upbringings in similar ways.  Other back-and-forth vignettes relate to how the men came to meet and eventually marry Coretta (Weruche Opia) and Betty (Jayme Lawson).

Were I to list all the overlaps, both genuine and forced, it would become like one of those conspiratorial lists connecting the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations (“Lincoln grew up in his father’s log cabin and Kennedy once spilled some Log Cabin syrup in his father’s Lincoln!”). That’s the kind of the level the series is working on, though it makes its points quickly and assertively.

The compare-contrast story works well for the early chapters of their lives because it helps give dimension to Martin and Malcolm as people before they became all-caps ICONS. Nobody is intimidated by either man at that stage, much less every person with whom they come into contact. Nor are they themselves intimidated by the responsibility to make every word out of their mouths come across like a slogan.

But the dam breaks in the third episode and the rest of the series suffers from a serious case of biopic-itis.

Bayard Rustin (Griffin Matthews) shows up at a Southern Christian Leadership Conference meeting and Coretta, out of nowhere, declares, “Mr. Rustin is a brilliant organizer, pacifist and well-regarded leader in non-violence,” a piece of resumé-spewing exposition that’s somehow better than when Rustin, in casual conversation, drops lines like, “Non-violence isn’t a strategy. It’s a way of life.” (Rustin is the subject of the Netflix biopic of the same name, played by Oscar nominee Colman Domingo.)

Minutes later, in the same episode in which the parallel structure is meant to make us understand that Martin and Malcolm are beginning to realize their budding influence, two white cops watch Malcolm in action and one, never seen before and never to be seen again, observes, “This is too much power for one man to have.”

That, kids, is just graceless writing and the next five episodes are packed with such moments — moments where people are very, very aware of the outside commentary imposed by history. For instance, when Martin returns from prison and his wife recounts her conversation with John F. Kennedy, a presidential candidate at the time, he observes, “That phone call probably changed the course of the election, of history.” Ugh.

The series is even more clunky with its handling of characters out of the immediate and direct sphere of its two heroes. Each scene with Donal Logue’s party-swapping Strom Thurmond is worse than the one before and not because Logue is bad. He’s as good as any actor could be with lines like, “Not today or tomorrow but soon, the Republican Party will come to represent all the values that make America great.” See what they did there?

The weight of indelible history, not helped by inconsistent use of documentary footage, is just too much for Genius: MLK/X to live up to.

The depiction of neither hero is deep, but it’s well-rounded. They’re given chances to be dignified and inspirational. But both men just as frequently are easily distracted husbands, dismissive bosses. They’re often insecure, still learning.

Pierre gives the stronger of the two lead performances, conveying Malcolm X’s rectitude in every bit of his physicality and embodying his persuasiveness, even if his cadences are much closer to Barack Obama than the actual Malcolm X. Harrison’s grasp of King’s voice comes and goes and there’s almost no resemblance at all, but sometimes when he gets into the flow of a speech or pronouncement, the actor vanishes entirely.

Both Opia and Lawson are excellent as Coretta and Betty, radiating different types of intelligence — one more nurturing, one more fierce. I don’t buy for a second, though, that Genius has done some great service in treating them as equals in the narrative. They’re just given a lot more time to be concerned or disapproving in the same way Civil Rights wives are so often treated. However respectful those presentations are, there’s a limit to how much feminist extra credit I can give to a series that treats Dorothy Cotton (Karina Willis) as little more than a secretary and Ella Baker (Erica Tazel) as possibly even less than that. These are significant figures turned into wallpaper.

Opportunities for the supporting cast are limited. The late Ron Cephas Jones makes for an intriguing and calculating Elijah Muhammad. Lennie James has one of the best-delivered speeches in the series. Hubert Point-Du Jour’s Ralph Abernathy stands off to the side and then complains that Martin treats him like an afterthought. Gary Carr’s Clyde X hangs back and judges Malcolm X and then doesn’t really do anything because even though Clyde X was a real figure, he’s been morphed into a composite.

There’s some very funny stunt casting for LBJ and J. Edgar Hoover. It’s bad casting, but it’s funny enough that I don’t want to spoil it.

For a series with almost no subtlety at all — the use of modern songs that say almost exactly what’s happening onscreen is definitely a choice — the treatment of the two assassinations borders on understated. Before those assassinations occur, the finale effectively captures the way Malcolm X’s post-Nation of Islam politics and King’s anti-war sentiments were leading in the direction of a dovetail, presenting one of history’s great “What If?” tragedies.

Did James Baldwin come to the same conclusions in two sentences that it takes Genius: MLK/X eight hours to arrive at? Sure, but I haven’t been a fan of the last two Genius seasons, so I mean it as a compliment to say that however clumsy the MLK/X storytelling sometimes is, the compare-contrast approach gives the season some momentum and yields some sturdy points.

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