The Civil Rights Movement and its leaders have often been presented as relics of the past: They’ve become untouchable figures reduced to photographs, videos and speeches. However, in National Geographic’s outstanding “Genius: MLK/X,” icons and activists Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Malcolm X (Aaron Pierre) are portrayed as more than historical pillars. Instead, the men are highlighted in their full and colorful humanity as revolutionaries, fathers and husbands with extraordinary but differing visions that would change the course of history. “MLK/X” showcases not just the parallel lives of these men but of their wives – Coretta Scott King (Weruche Opia) and Betty Shabazz (Jayme Lawson), freedom fighters who sacrificed so much so that our country, despite its many ills, might heal some of the rot.
It’s easy to forget how young Dr. King and Malcolm X were because of their complex life experiences. Though they died three years apart, both men were slain at age 39. With Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” and Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” among others, it feels as if we’ve seen their stories before. But over eight episodes, “MLK/X” offers a refreshing, enthralling perspective that echoes the mastery of Raoul Peck’s James Baldwin-centered documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.” Beautifully stylized and utilizing modern music like Joonie’s “Timeless Love” during the Kings’ wedding reception or Tem’s “The Key” following Malcolm X’s prison release are inspired choices.
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Based on Jeff Stetson’s play “The Meeting” and Peniel E. Joseph’s novel “The Sword and the Shield” with Attallah Shabazz on hand as a collaborator, “MLK/X” exquisitely illustrates how one event or decision can transform someone’s life. The series opens on March 26, 1964, the first and only time Dr. King and Malcolm X would ever meet in person. The ministers connect on Capitol Hill urging President Lyndon B. Johnson to pass the Civil Rights Act. For two men with differing ideals, their objectives brought them to the same place.
After a glimpse of the iconic meeting, the viewer is pulled back to the 1930s, during the ministers’ boyhoods. In Lansing, Michigan, Malcolm X was raised by his Black Nationalist parents, who were followers of Marcus Garvey. His close relationship with his father, Earl Little (Gbenga Akinnagbe), draws parallels to his eventual tutelage under Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad (the late Ron Cephas Jones). It is a bond that would alter his life, and eventually break his heart. A few years later, in Atlanta, Georgia, Dr. King was born into a Christian household helmed by a non-nonsense father (Lennie James). For Dr. King and Malcolm X, equality and a sense of self were ingrained from the beginning.
It’s always burdensome to portray well-known figures. Yet, Harrison Jr. and Pierre are more than up for the task. The actors have mastered the cadence of the activists’ speech, gait and even their projecting of the fear and paranoia that comes with living under surveillance, and the constant threat of violence. Stepping beyond the outward stoicism the men displayed to the world, the joys of new love, ice cream and the tenderness of fatherhood are abundant here. In the careful hands of these actors, Malcolm X and Dr. King become tangible.
While the series is about the two legends, it expands beyond them to showcase their wives’ countless contributions to Black liberation. Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz are central characters in “MLK/X.” Not only does the show offer both women’s perspectives throughout, but the audience is privy to all they sacrificed for the movement — and it’s a lot.
Written by playwright Sigrid Gilmer and directed by Crystle Roberson, Episode 5, “Matriarchs,” is told wholly from Mrs. King and Mrs. Shabazz’s viewpoints, beginning with their girlhoods through the 1970s. Opia and Lawson pay homage to ambitious women fighting to be seen and heard in their marriages and amid the sexism deeply embedded in the Black community. “MLK/X” chronicles their journeys as they grapple with holding on to as much of themselves as possible. Moving beyond the traditional “helpmeet” role, the actresses depict Mrs. King and Mrs. Shabazz as having their own dreams that do not include standing in the shadows of their husbands.
The Black experience is sacred, and for generations of Black people who are warned to “never air our dirty laundry,” playing the game of respectability politics may appear to be a safety blanket. Unfortunately, sanitizing our leaders has made them unapproachable and, in many ways, unrelatable. Offering a full-colored version of the men’s lives, which covers everything from imprisonment, marital strife and hurtful fallouts with close friends, gives the men back the humanity that has been stripped from them over the years. Dr. King’s suicide attempt as a teen and Malcolm X’s time as a Harlem hustler called “Red” are rarely discussed, but in “MLK/X,” these experiences are put forth as pivotal turning points. In allowing a broad and complete picture of the men and the movement, the series also highlights figures like Bayard Rustin (Griffin Matthews), who, until recently in the Colman Domingo starrer “Rustin,” has been erased despite his massive contributions. Ella Baker (Erica Tazel) also gets time in the spotlight, a rarity in a narrative that has historically centered on men.
“Genius: MLK/X” elegantly connects the audience with the past. As our current political climate has become increasingly more volatile, it is apparent how present history is, especially when the show turns its lens on protests and people like the white supremacist Senator Strom Thurmond (Donal Logue). Though the masses know the highlights of the Civil Rights Movement and Malcolm X and Dr. King’s lives, this series is a reminder of what freedom has cost and the price we will continue to pay as the fight persists.
The first two episodes of “Genius: MLK/X” premiere on National Geographic on Feb. 1, with two new episodes premiering weekly. The series premiere will also air on ABC on Feb. 1 at 9 p.m. Episodes of “Genius: MLK/X” stream on Disney+ and Hulu the day after they air on National Geographic.
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