Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X only met once in their lives and it was by happenstance. On March 24, 1964, the two civil rights leaders had arrived in Washington, D.C., to lobby for the passage of the the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
With reporters watching, they awkwardly chitchatted and posed for a photo together. That moment, using the interior of the Georgia State Capitol building as the U.S. Senate building, is captured at the very beginning of the fourth incarnation of National Geographic’s “Genius” series.
This is the first time this anthology follows the journeys of two people instead of one following parallel timelines over eight episodes. (Previous seasons chronicled Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso and Aretha Franklin.)
The first two episodes debut on the Nat Geo cable network and ABC on Thursday, Feb. 1, with new episodes coming out every Thursday on Nat Geo. Both Hulu and Disney will make those new episodes available each Friday for streaming.
“After two years,” said executive producer Raphael Jackson Jr. “we are now at the proverbial finish line. We can sit back and have the audience see the blood, sweat and tears we poured into this project. Hopefully they can appreciate the story we are trying to tell.”
Both King and Malcolm X were assassinated when they were 39 years old, three years apart during the tumultuous 1960s. Their stories are hardly secret. There is no shortage of books, documentaries and films over the decades to peruse and learn about these men.
But the executive producers hope this tightly edited, sometimes tense, sometimes sad, but often joyous series can draw younger generations who only know the men in broad strokes. They even added modern music into the mix.
“I hope they can be engaged and find a source of inspiration to fuel them to become active in our world,” Jackson said. “Now more than ever we need that.”
Nat Geo originally was going to just focus on King but producers Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood insisted that Malcolm X be included as well. “They were both living and experiencing similar things at the same time,” Jackson said. “They got married around the same time. They had children around the same time.”
The series also helps people understand the two men were not enemies. “Arguably, there’s a lot of misinformation regarding their viewpoints and objectives,” said Aaron Pierre, a British actor who played Malcolm X. “They had the same objectives. They just had their own subjective personal viewpoints on how best to achieve them. It’s like two sides of the same coin.”
With eight episodes, “we got a little more breadth and space” than a regular film, said producer Damione Macedon. “We saw this as an eight-hour movie. We want to illuminate and highlight as much as we could about our four core characters because we weren’t just depicting an event. We wanted to show their origin story, the moments before the big moments.”
Indeed, while the series is about Malcolm and King, their wives Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King are given plenty of airtime, including the focus of an entire fifth episode.
Kelvin Harrison, who plays King, said he came to appreciate how crucial these women were to their husbands. “These were true partnerships,” he said. “These men could not have sustained themselves without their love for them, the country and Black people.”
“These are real people who mean a lot to us,” said Jayme Lawson, who portrayed Shabazz. “For me, this was an opportunity to give Dr. Betty Shabazz her voice and show the full experience of her full womanhood. It was nerve wracking at times. Am I being disrespectful by showing her doubts and uncertainties? I realized that you can have those questions and doubts and still leave a strong legacy.”
Credit: National Geographic/Richard DuCree
Credit: National Geographic/Richard DuCree
Shooting the film in King’s hometown of Atlanta was special, Jackson said.
“Martin is everywhere in Atlanta,” Macedon said. “Many of the extras had walked the same streets with Martin during the civil rights movement. They knew Martin and Malcolm. They were excited to perform and relive these moments for a new generation. Atlanta was our home away from home. The city was the 12th man for this project.”
Weruche Opia, who played Coretta Scott King, visited King’s birthplace and the Martin Luther King Center. “It was very spiritual, very grounding, very special for me,” she said. “I had a great time.”
Jackson said the scene at the Georgia State Capitol for the moment when King and Malcolm X meet was his favorite. “You could feel the anticipation in the room,” he recalled. “There were 100 people on set. All that love and energy that day was incredible.”
IF YOU WATCH
9 p.m. Thursdays on Nat Geo, episodes available the next day on Hulu and Disney+
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution including TV, radio, film, comedy and all things in between. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years. He loves tennis, pop culture & seeing live events.