Much has been written about the one-and-only time the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X met. It was on March 26, 1964, and the two civil rights leaders were both in Washington for a Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act.
The moment is also depicted in the new installment of National Geographic’s “Genius” anthology series called “ Genius: MLK /X,” premiering Thursday. This is the fourth series.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. (King) and Aaron Pierre (Malcolm X) now can be at ease about being scheduled to shoot the scene on the first day of filming. At the time, it was intimidating.
“I was like, what kind of prank are the producers trying to play on us,” recalled Harrison. “We barely even knew what we were doing yet.
“We kind of went into separate corners … and we didn’t really see each other until that moment. What you see is us seeing each other for the first time in character,” he said.
Looking back, Pierre thinks it was a smart scheduling decision.
“Had we had four months (of shooting) under our belt, I think we might have gone into that differently, but we had no choice but to just lean into the present moment,” he said.
Executive producers Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood kept a photo of the real-life introduction on their two sons’ walls while they were growing up. Their hope is that with “Genius: MLK/X,” viewers will recognize the contributions of both men to civil rights and U.S. history.
“One misconception is that we’re told we have to choose. Either you align with Malcolm, or you align with Martin, you know, but our offering is that we need both,” said Bythewood. “While they challenged each other, they also learned from each other, and they were aligned in many ways.”
Past seasons of “Genius” have covered Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso and Aretha Franklin. “Genius: MLK /X” examines each man’s origin story and what led them to make the choices they did to lead a movement.
“We know the speeches. We know the interviews. We know the famous moments. But we wanted to explore what happened in the lead-up to those moments and what made these men believe they had the capacity to do the things they did,” said Pierre.
For accuracy, the producers and writers held a two-week “think take” for eight hours a day. Scholars, activists and people who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement were invited. They dug into the men’s personal lives, mental health and more. Bythewood says they discussed things they wouldn’t have ever gotten from history books. “Some of these scholars even debated each other,” he said. “As writers we were like: ‘This is a goldmine.’”
Another priority: to “amplify” Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz, who were married to King and X.
“Too often they’re thought of as just the wives or the sidekick. They were so integral not only to the genius of the two men, but to the movement itself,” said Prince-Bythewood.
The fifth episode of the series tells each woman’s backstory and how they evolved into leaders.
“We shine a powerful, beautiful light on those women and the equal role they played in these movements,” said Pierre. “I think that’s something really special.”
Harrison says he originally believed he was not up for the challenge of playing King.
“I said no at first,” Harrison said. “The producers asked me to read the first episode at least, and I met with them and expressed my feeling of basically imposter syndrome, that I didn’t think I had what it takes to do it. They said, ‘That’s the reason why we want you to do it, because at the age that Dr. King was, when he had to step into this big movement, he also didn’t know if he had what it took.’”
For Pierre, he hopes that people finish this “Genius” installment with a fresh understanding of Malcolm X, a man who he says, “there is a considerable amount of misinformation about.”
“Malcolm X, el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, he operated from a place of love. He operated from a place of light. He wasn’t advocating someone to see out physical confrontation. He was advocating for the cause of his deep love for his family, his friends, his community, his loved ones, anyone in the world that looked like him,” Pierre said.
The series is premiering at a time when Black history is threatened in schools and key moments are being removed from curriculums.
“There are places across the country where the “ Letter from Birmingham Jail ” is banned. “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” is challenged. But this is American history,” said Bythewood.