With 'Genius: MLK/X,' Kelvin Harrison Jr. & Aaron Pierre Bring Two Civil Rights Icons to Life

On the morning of March 26, 1964, just hours before a Senate hearing on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s proposed Civil Rights Act, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X met for the first and only time on the hallowed grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. Although they were often seen as polar opposites in terms of political ideology—King was a proponent of nonviolent protest, while Malcolm X advocated for a militant approach to battling white supremacy—the two men were united in their fight for racial equality in America.

That historic meeting between two giants of the Civil Rights Movement serves as the jumping-off point for Genius: MLK/X, the latest season of National Geographic’s biopic anthology series. Executive produced by Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood, the new eight-part series, which premieres February 1 on Nat Geo and streams the next day on Disney+ and Hulu, makes the argument that, despite their different upbringings and religious convictions, Dr. King (played by Elvis and Chevalier’s Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Malcolm X (The Underground Railroad’s Aaron Pierre) were on parallel paths for almost their entire lives.

Martin Luther King and Malcolm X after Press Conference at U.S. Capitol about Senate Debate on Civil Rights Act of 1964, Washington, DC USA, March 26, 1964.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

“These are two magnificent men who had different ways of achieving the same thing, and what was really beautiful is highlighting the enormous roles that both of their wives played in this story,” Pierre tells W in a joint interview with Harrison, the day after the show’s premiere screening in Washington D.C. (Weruche Opia plays Coretta Scott King, while Jayme Lawson brings new life to Betty Shabazz.) “It’s impossible to show up in the capacity both of these men did without the pillars, the forces, the lights that are their wives.”

Do either of you remember the first time you were taught about Dr. King and Malcolm X and how that affected the way you move through the world as Black men?

Aaron Pierre: Yeah, I was very fortunate and blessed to be informed about them from a very young age—and I don’t take that for granted. My parents and grandparents taught me about these great men from a very early age. There was no guarantee that the school system was going to educate me about these things, so they took it into their own hands and gave me insight and shared this knowledge with me. My experience was that I felt very empowered.

Kelvin Harrison Jr.: As soon as Black History Month rolled around [in school], there were posters everywhere and the conversation was there, but it felt very commercial. It didn’t really feel like there was a real education or an objective to help us better understand who we were as people of color.

What I did take away from it, though, was there was someone that stood for equality, and I did understand what the whole concept of equality meant. It gave me a sense of hope that if I was to live this life, no matter where I went, there was a representation that people worked hard to allow me to exist in this space. There was a respect and an understanding that, I get to be here because of some people, but that was the extent of my education.

Martin Luther King Jr., played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., graduates from university in GENIUS: MLK/X.

National Geographic/Richard DuCree

Civil rights icons are so revered they almost become godlike, and it’s easy to lose sight of who they really were. What did you want to capture about the private selves of Dr. King and Malcolm X that went beyond the outward stoicism they displayed to the world?

AP: We wanted to highlight and capture their humanity. We know the speeches—“I Have a Dream,” “The Ballot or the Bullet,” “By Any Means Necessary.” We wanted to explore what happens in the buildup to that moment, the parts of their life that make them tangible for us, that make them feel like people we can connect to on a deeper level. Once I discovered and uncovered that, I had an even deeper reverence, because [Malcolm X] is just a man who didn’t ever see 40 and still managed to achieve such an enormous amount in such an elegant, eloquent, and powerful way.

Malcolm X, played by Aaron Pierre, and Betty X, played by Jayme Lawson, in GENIUS: MLK/X.

National Geographic/Richard DuCree

You’ve both mastered the cadence of these men’s speech, their mannerisms, their gait, and even the deeply human projection of fear and paranoia that comes with living under surveillance and the constant threat of violence for as long as they did. What were the keys to embodying their physicality?

KHJ: I think it really all comes back down to just living. I would go to bed and wake up watching him. I would have a playlist of YouTube videos of him playing on repeat while I cooked. A lot of what we do is we study behavior, right? It’s up to me to take what I’ve seen and a lived experience in my actual life and say, “Does my feeling connect to the thing that I’ve seen? Now that I’ve matched those two things, I can portray it.” It’s making it come from a real place. We all understand what love is, what betrayal is, what fear is, what jealousy is. You just throw a dialect in there—we worked with professional dialect coaches—and do some text work, which is what we’ve studied to do as actors.

Martin Luther King Jr., played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., is accosted at a sit-in as seen in GENIUS: MLK/X.

National Geographic/Richard DuCree

What do you think was the turning point in both of their fights for social justice?

AP: There are a lot, but I think one of the pivotal moments in Malcolm X’s life was when he discovered Islam and what that did for him and how that informed his future. There were many moments like this throughout [both of] their lives. I feel like a key theme is that God will present a sign for you, and it’s about whether you have the capacity and the awareness to identify it as a sign, or you choose to ignore it. These men were experts in identifying and saying, “Yep, I see it. Okay, I know the direction to go in.”

Malcolm X, played by Aaron Pierre, preaches in GENIUS: MLK/X.

National Geographic/Richard DuCree

KHJ: The biggest point [for Dr. King] was saying, “Yes, I’m going to go to Montgomery and preach.” He could have stayed at Ebenezer [Baptist Church in Atlanta]; he could have consistently just lived under his dad’s shoes. But what’s so funny about it, was that Daddy King is like, “I’m changing your name because you’ve been chosen. You have a calling. But at the same time, I want to protect you with all my might. I don’t want you to go out into the world and experience that for yourself.” [Editor’s note: Martin Luther King Jr.’s name was Michael until his father changed it when he was five years old, in honor of the Reformation leader.]

Part of the calling is MLK making a choice for himself and following what his convictions are telling him, what he knows is the right thing to do. That’s the coming-of-age part of this story. It’s like when we have to leave our parents’ home and decipher what our purpose is, and that’s a hard thing to do. It takes a lot of courage.

Martin Luther King Jr., played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., preaches in GENIUS: MLK/X.

National Geographic/Richard DuCree

What do you think sets your interpretations of Malcolm X and Dr. King apart from the numerous actors who have played these men in the past?

AP: For me personally, it’s less a matter of what sets our portrayals aside. Everybody has the capacity to bring their humanity and their lived experience to the portrayals of these individuals, and I think you’ll uncover and discover more and more about the nuances and intimate details of their lives and how they navigated their journeys.

KHJ: We are the youngest, I think, to do it. We’re both under 30, and that’s a unique perspective that we also don’t remember about these men. Most of their big career achievements happened before they even turned 30, and all of them happened under 40. So to see our faces and to see us navigate it with such a close relationship to that point [in one’s life], that’s fresh, and that might bring a uniqueness to it.

Malcolm X, played by Aaron Pierre, speaks during a debate from prison as seen in GENIUS: MLK/X.

National Geographic/Richard DuCree

This anthology series debuts at a time when books and discussions about racism are being banned in schools across the country. Given that these longstanding issues of race have been—and will continue to be—discussed at length, what new insights do you think can be gleaned from revisiting Malcolm X and Dr. King’s life stories in 2024, more than 60 years after the March on Washington?

AP: I think what you’ve just said there is the key. The issues are longstanding, and yes, there is no denying that progress has been made, but there’s also no denying that there is a tremendously long way to go in all areas of the world in regards to race relations. A key thing is that this story wouldn’t be retold if it wasn’t necessary, if it wasn’t critical. That’s something that is important to identify and acknowledge about this series—this is an opportunity to continue the conversation with a rejuvenated energy.

Martin Luther King Jr., played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., marches in protest in GENIUS: MLK/X.

National Geographic/Richard DuCree

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