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Genius: MLK/X Stars Discuss the ‘Unnerving’ Task of Portraying Civil Rights Icons in NatGeo Anthology

Portraying venerated Civil Rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X is a tall order for anyone, but Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Chevalier) and Aaron Pierre (The Underground Railroad) certainly rise to the occasion in National Geographic’s powerful anthology Genius: MLK/X from Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood.

The eight-episode limited series, which premiered the first two episodes on Thursday, offers an intimate look at both men as husbands, fathers and eventual leaders of the Movement. Harrison and Pierre, who play King and Malcolm X respectively, deftly handle the intimidating task with a thoughtfulness and confidence that does right by both iconic men. But for Harrison, it took serious introspection to get to that point in his portrayal of King.

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“When we were starting it, I had a lot of people [say], ‘Oh my god, you’re about to play Dr. King,’ and every time someone did that, I felt smaller and smaller and more distant from him,” Harrison tells TVLine. “The whole objective is to show how close we are to these men and how relatable they actually are… So it was me trying to find my own strength and my own sense of worthiness.”

Referencing King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, which touched on the “degenerating sense of ‘nobodyness,’” or projections from others, Harrison shares that a major challenge was “overcoming my own sense of ‘nobodyness,’ to embrace my amazingness as a Black person, and my own agency and my own strength. That was the biggest thing for me, my imposter syndrome.”

Pierre, meanwhile, found it “daunting” and “unnerving” to be tasked with playing Malcolm X. “I remember when Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood reached out to me, and they saw something in me that made them believe I could do it. That was terrifying for me,” the actor shares.

“I didn’t know if I had the capacity,” Pierre notes. “I didn’t know if I had the endurance, the stamina, the ability to see this through in the way that I believed it needed to be done.”

But after imagining that there were probably moments when Malcolm X didn’t feel ready for an opportunity that was presented to him, Pierre says he leaned into the thought leader’s strength and power, which “really gave me the strength and power I needed to do my best to celebrate his legacy and give the most authentic and strong portrayal of him I could.”

King and X would not have reached the heights they did without their wives, Coretta Scott King and Dr. Betty Shabazz, which the show makes clear in the upcoming fifth episode. The hour, titled “Matriarchs” and airing Tuesday, Feb. 15, puts the spotlight on both women (played by Weruche Opia and Jayme Lawson, respectively) who were not only vital to their husbands’ successes, but also in continuing their legacies long after their deaths.

“In many ways, I almost feel like this show is about the women,” Harrison says. “They held [MLK and X] accountable every single time. When they felt like they couldn’t handle it, when [MLK and X] felt like they were lost, they redirected them. When [MLK and X] felt like they were uninspired and scared, they uplifted them, reinspired them and refocused them.”

Pierre adds that “it’s impossible to show up in the capacity that Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did without the women that they had in their lives. I think it’s so critical that we shine this beautiful, great, powerful beaming spotlight on Dr. Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King. They need their flowers. They need to be celebrated and championed.”

Genius: MLK/X arrives at a volatile time when African American studies are being stripped down or removed altogether from curriculums and books across the nation are being banned from schools and libraries, among other social upheavals. What Harrison hopes audiences take away from the series given this current sociopolitical climate is on par with King’s often optimistic messaging.

“It sounds really simple, but I just hope that people feel inspired,” he says. “I think the cool thing is that there’s a whole new generation of people that have the opportunity to use their words and their voices to say something about what they believe.”

“Greatness doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from choices we make,” Harrison continues. “What we get to see in the show is that these men decided to not allow the negativity, the obstacles, the conflict to define them. I think the exercise for all of us is to recognize our own personal genius, recognize that we also have a choice and recognize that we do have a path forward if we choose to go on it.”

What did you think of the first two episodes of Genius: MLK/X on National Geographic? Grade them below, and then share your feelings in the comments.

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