Exploring the life of one great person whose impact is universally undeniable has been the formula for National Geographic’s anthology series “Genius” since its Albert Einstein-centered launch in 2017. With its fourth installment, that formula has been shaken up with a dual portrait of two men who largely defined the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, leaving behind both a legacy and intrigue that persists to this day.
Flipping conventional tendencies to pit Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X against each other, “Genius: MLK/X” —guided by Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Hollywood husband-and-wife duo Gina Prince-Bythewood (“The Woman King”) and Reggie Rock Bythewood (“Swagger”) as executive producers — explores the many parallels in both their personal lives and activist callings. Charged with balancing and calming this continual back-and-forth are showrunners/executive producers Raphael Jackson Jr. and Damione Macedon (“Power,” “Mosquito Coast). On the screen, Kelvin Harrison Jr. (“Chevalier”) and Aaron Pierre (“The Underground Railroad”) take on the two icons, joined by Weruche Opia (“I May Destroy You”) and Jayme Lawson (“The Batman,” “The Woman King”) as Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz.
The eight-part series, which jumps from man to man at various ages and stages of his journey, takes its cues from Jeff Stetson’s 1987 play “The Meeting,” about King and Malcolm secretly connecting at a hotel in Harlem in 1965 later televised on PBS’ “American Playhouse.” Nearly 40 years later, Stetson has developed “MLK/X” for TV, penning the pilot and serving as an executive producer. Historian Peniel E. Joseph’s book “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” is also a critical resource, with Joseph, who is the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School at University of Texas-Austin, also serving as a consultant for the series, along with a panel of impressive others, including Malcolm and Betty’s eldest daughter Ambassador Shabazz. So the introductory disclaimer declaring the show as “inspired by true events,” and confessing to using dramatic license, has more truth than typical for these ambitious adaptations, especially of beloved Black historical figures.
Footage of Alabama Governor George Wallace’s infamous 1963 “segregation now, segregation forever” address plays before the bold white type announces President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 call for the passage of the Civil Rights Act; followed by a montage of era protests and Jim Crow white and colored waiting room signs before fading into an adult Malcolm X, with wife Betty, choosing a tie meshing into Martin tying his own with wife Coretta by his side. These intimate moments underscore the centrality of each man’s spouse to their fights for freedom and equality. They also set up the only photo documentation of the two giants crossing paths on Capitol Hill in 1964.
From there, the story centers fully on its stars, flashing back to each man’s childhood, focusing on the centrality of their fathers and their early introduction to ideas of Black freedom and liberation. As impossible as it seems, “MLK/X” bobs and weaves into these backstories with ease settling on Boston, a pivotal place for both men in that King became a PhD and met Coretta, and Malcolm was incarcerated and led to the Nation of Islam and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (an award-worthy performance by the late Ron Cephas Jones) there. Young actors Jalyn Hall (an Atlanta native known for “Till” and “All American”) and Joshua Caleb Johnson (Onion of “The Good Lord Bird”) offer a glimpse into who the two men are destined to become and why.
The series impressively sweeps through the epic moments of its subject’s lives, including events like Dr. King’s stabbing in Harlem, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Malcolm’s discovery of Elijah Muhammad’s misdeeds and break from the Nation, government surveillance and more. “MLK/X” also tracks each man’s genius without ignoring or excusing his faults. Their evolution, especially as it pertains to managing and changing gendered expectations of their wives, is on full display. Careful attention is also paid to the moves they were making when their lives came to a tragic halt.
They weren’t just freedom fighters who are now icons, but full men who lived as sons, brothers, husbands and fathers, not to mention followers and leaders. To that end, Harrison and Pierre give unbelievable performances. Even when they falter in parts, their overall portrayals show so much commitment to get it right that it’s easy to overlook or forgive. Clearly, Harrison has studied every King mannerism and breath. But he is under the least pressure. Pierre, who must follow Denzel Washington’s mic-drop Oscar-nominated performance in Spike Lee’s classic “Malcolm X” back in 1992, has no such luxury. While it is impossible to top Denzel, to his credit, the Canadian actor projects Malcolm’s great dignity and commanding presence, lending credibility to the role.
While both wives are great, with Lawson having more practice as Medgar Evers’ widow Myrlie in “Till” and a young Michelle Obama in “The First Lady,” Nigerian actress Opia is an especially winning Coretta. The guest stars are plentiful, including “Kindred” star Mallori Johnson as Malcolm’s one-time lover and “Snowfall” star Michael Hyatt checking in as Betty’s nurturer. Other cast highlights include Gary Carr, Lennie James, Hubert Point-Du Jour and LisaGay Hamilton. From directing to costume design, makeup and wardrobe to cinematography, lighting, production design and more, everyone involved with the series brought their A-game.
Although there are quibbles — white characters like Strom Thurmond and Lyndon B. Johnson coming off more one-dimensional, and big moments more known to the average viewer not landing as grand as they should — “MLK/X” is a stunning offering that delivers a punch far too great to ignore. In a time when Black history is once again under attack, this series should inspire audiences to delve even deeper into two men they don’t know as well as they should.
With this bold and ambitious production, “Genius” once again proves its brilliance.
“Genius: MLK/X” premieres Thursday, Feb. 1, on National Geographic, and will be available to streaming Friday, Feb. 2, on Disney+ and Hulu.