For decades, the respective legacies of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X have been explored through film and television. In Nat Geo’s latest Genius season, Genius: MLK/X, the lives of the late icons mirror one another proving that they were much more alike versus the huge contrast that is often portrayed within American history books.
“We’ve been taught so many times that you have to choose,” executive producer of the series, showrunner Reggie Rock Bythewood told Blavity’s Shadow and Act in a recent interview. “You have to pick them out or you have to pick Martin and even when this idea was presented to us, Nat Geo was kind enough to come to us and ask us if we were interested in doing a narrative about Dr. King and ultimately, our response is, ‘You don’t get to have Martin without Malcolm.’”
He continued, “So much of what we’re doing in this series is revealing that while they challenged each other and contrasted, they also informed each other and it was really fun to just look into their personal lives and see that there are so many similarities. It’s just really fascinating to see that and so that’s what we’ve looked to do in this series..to sort of see how their personal lives intersected as well.”
For Harrison Jr., who plays MLK, his approach to embodying Dr. King was unlearning every single thing he’s been taught about the civil rights leader over the years and digging deep into the soul of who he was beyond just what was shown in the spotlight.
“There’s a lot of information that I’ve been given about him from other voices instead of from the source and I will never actually get to have a one-on-one conversation with him, obviously, but Aaron and I went straight to the autobiography and we went to the biography of those who knew him,” he said. “We went to documentaries and interviews…and we studied them. What we do is actors [is that] we study behavior and behavior comes with something so human.”
He continued, “It became a bit of a psychological exercise and what aspects of his behavior make me feel like I can relate to it and what does that mean for me? There’s also a piece of, we’re talking about somebody who was killed at 39 and also did a lot of these monumental things before he was even 30. And one of my fears was that I was too young to do it. But then, once I realized that he was so much younger, I embraced it. I was like, well the same questions I asked myself about how do I find love, what am I looking for in love… if I have a family what does that look like…being a junior and trying to get out of my father’s shadow..looking for a job and trying to figure out how to pay the bills– these are the things that I found relatable along with fear, anxiety, lust and just normal things we all experience. I tried to investigate the myth and then see how it informed who we are as men.”
Additionally, Aaron Pierre also knew that he had big shoes to feel through his portrayal of Malcolm X.
“In any role or individual that I portray, I bring my lived experience and my human experience to what I believe that essence and then nuance is for me,” Pierre said. “For me, it was just deeply important to do the research and deep dive into the exploration of the autobiography and The Sword and the Shield by Penelope Joseph and documentaries, footage of university lectures, panels, interviews, speeches…and then you have to set it free. “You have to trust that it’s within you and it’s a physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual experience. You’re guided by walking in faith and hopefully, by the grace of God, you portray the essence of who you’re trying to portray, and hopefully, you do that authentically.”
Genius: MLK/X airs new episodes weekly on National Geographic and streams next day on Disney+ and Hulu.