The legacies of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. are closely associated with many African Americans. However, the only encounter between the two individuals that is known to exist was an accidental one on March 26, 1964. The two briefly crossed paths during the Senate’s continuous discussion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and they posed for the few pictures that have been taken of them together.
Malcolm X would die in less than a year, and King would die three years later. They remain significant personalities in our history even after sixty years. And Season 4 of National Geographic’s critically acclaimed “Genius” series, “MLK/X,” which stars Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Aaron Pierre, delves deeply into the reasons for it.
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The dual approach differs from the series’ sole emphasis, which has emphasized Aretha Franklin, Pablo Picasso, and Albert Einstein. Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood, a power couple in Hollywood, spearheaded the series’ attempt to tackle the genius of King and Malcolm X at the same time. One essential model for the series is the play “The Meeting,” which aired on PBS’s esteemed “American Playhouse” the year 1989. The playwright of the fictional encounter of the two titans, Jeff Stetson, serves as executive producer. The series’ showrunners are Damione Macedon and Raphael Jackson Jr., whose credits include the Starz series “Power.”
“Woman King” director Prince-Bythewood noted, “So often we’re asked to choose between Dr. King and Malcolm X, and so many of us don’t realize that they’re really two sides of the same coin.”
Both men felt that Black people in our nation were not treated fairly, but they approached the pursuit of justice in different ways. King adopted a nonviolent attitude and approach, while the Nation of Islam pastor supported the use of force in self-defense. He even demonized white people in his early support of Black nationalism, autonomy, and independence. King, on the other hand, was seen as an integrationist who thought that Black and White people might work together to correct those injustices and eventually coexist.
Prince-Bythewood added, “They both had the same objective.”
He added, “They were just going about it differently. Yet, towards the end of their lives, they were so much more alike than separate and really coming together. That iconic picture was really our jumping-off point of the two of their first and only meeting. So we really wanted to show the importance of both men and to take the villainization off of Malcolm X.” Additionally, Prince-Bythewood mentioned that they aimed to highlight Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King’s, “importance in not just their husbands’ lives, but the movement itself.”
The degree of historical authenticity in the series was chosen on purpose. Bythewood claimed to have brought together a “think tank” of academics and activists, among them historian Peniel E. Joseph, the author of the highly regarded “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.,” and, among other others, Ambassador Attallah Shabazz, the eldest child of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz.
Bythewood, who recently starred in NBA legend Kevin Durant’s AAU basketball series “Swagger” on Apple TV, stated that he and Prince-Bythewood didn’t want to only depend on historical accounts.
Bythewood remarked, “It’s also just really amazing to just get certain things from their personal lives, just little nuances that a lot of us didn’t know.” “There were just very specific things in their personal lives that really helped shape who they are.”
Actors Harrison and Pierre both drew on personal experience and history to bring these two iconic figures to life. The native of New Orleans, Harrison attributes his ability to relate to King more deeply than reading a book to his time spent in Atlanta, the home state of the civil rights activist. “That helped me in such a real way and gave me such a close proximity to the truth, a close proximity to the excitement and the fire and the passion and the spirituality,” Harrison noted.
Reading gave British performer Pierre a sense of stability. “The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley” in addition to Joseph’s book “watching the Malcolm X documentary that was guided by Dr. Betty Shabazz, watching endless footage of speeches and panels and interviews.” He also gained an understanding of Malcolm X as a person by living in New York.
Pierre strolled around Harlem, passing by Temple No. 7 and stopping at the site of Malcolm X’s assassination, which was once the Audubon Ballroom. “That was such a beautiful experience just to embrace that energy, feel empowered by that energy, and it fueled me to really go and embark on this massive journey with a lot of love and confidence,” Pierre noted.
Pierre claimed that rather than crumbling under the weight of trying to emulate the role played by his particular hero, Denzel Washington, in the 1992 movie “Malcolm X,” he turned within to create his own version. Additionally, he had the honor of collaborating closely with the multi-award winning actor Ron Cephas Jones, whose final performance was as Elijah Muhammad in “This Is Us.”
“Not only was he so generous from an artistic standpoint of imparting advice and guidance in that respect, but he was also incredibly open with me, like an on-set father to me, in giving me personal insight and personal advice and guidance,” Pierre noted. “I’m deeply grateful for him.”
Both Jayme Lawson, who portrays Betty Shabazz and has portrayed Michelle Obama in “The First Lady” and Myrlie Evers in “Until,” and Weruche Opia, a British-Nigerian actor from “I May Destroy You,” who plays Coretta Scott King, expressed that they welcomed the challenge of their parts.
Lawson expressed her happiness at showcasing Shabazz and her husband’s closeness, saying in particular “how giddy she was for Malcolm.” In a society where Black women are frequently seen as simply “these strong, resilient, stoic women,” She claimed that finding out he was a “safe space” where she could express “the fullness of our womanhood, the girlish smiles” privately with him.
“He was impressed by the way in which she saw him,” Lawson added. “Everybody else saw this great man of a movement or ascending in a movement, but she saw him.” She, in turn, saw to it that he ate and took care of himself, giving him the strength he needed to resist being crushed beneath that burden.
Opia discovered another side to King’s superior. “Coretta Scott King definitely did a lot more than the world tells us she did. I was ashamed that I didn’t know that, but here we are at this point and I’m correcting it by retelling the information I found out,” Opia said. “I don’t want anyone not to know who she is anymore.”
Prince-Bythewood refers to these famous spouses and wives as “the Big Four,” and one of their primary objectives was to “take them off the pedestal and make them real for audiences to connect with.”