Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X met just once in their brief lives. It was March 26, 1964, when both men were on Capitol Hill for a Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act. They greeted each other cordially, and photographers caught the moment in an image that has long resonated: Two Black leaders with different philosophies but a common purpose, shaking hands and smiling pleasantly. Both men would die within the next few years — Malcolm first in 1965 and then King in 1968 — so the photo stands as a grim reminder of lost opportunity.
The fourth season of National Geographic’s anthology drama series Genius, subtitled MLK/X, recreates this moment early in its first episode, and while the scene suggests that King and Malcolm X were two opposing freight trains headed on a fateful collision course, the series never delivers on this premise. Instead, King and Malcolm X each drive two separate narratives that simply compete for space. Past seasons of Genius focused on a single titular genius (Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, and Aretha Franklin), and merging King and Malcolm is an odd choice that doesn’t benefit either man.
King’s story carries far more dramatic and historical weight: organizing the Montgomery bus boycott, joining lunch counter sit-ins, passing the Civil Rights Act, marching in Selma, and opposing Vietnam. Unfortunately, Malcolm X is reduced to a shadow player, a distant observer to King’s valiant struggle. Spike Lee’s 1992 epic biopic remains the gold standard for documenting Malcolm’s truly American story, and MLK/X’s account of the same events too often feels like Cliffs Notes.
The failings of MLK/X don’t fall on the leads, who are both excellent. Aaron Pierre (of The Underground Railroad and the upcoming Blade reboot) escapes Denzel Washington’s considerable shadow as both Malcolm Little and Minister Malcolm X. It’s very much a dual role, and Pierre nails each part with subtle yet distinct alterations in body language and speech.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. is a revelation as King. The Chevalier actor perfectly captures both King’s awesome gravitas but also his often overlooked youth. Harrison Jr.’s King is no saint — his fully realized humanity, warts and all, succeeds in making him even more inspirational. MLK/X also casts a much-needed spotlight on King the political strategist and canny leader. After King presses President Lyndon B. Johnson (John C. McGinley) on the urgency of passing civil rights legislation, LBJ tells him, “You’ve got a Texas-sized pair on you, and for a non-violent man, you’re not afraid of a fight.” It’s a blunt, crude observation, but one that sums up King very well.
Coincidentally, Pierre and Harrison Jr. were cast as sibling rivals Mufasa and Scar in the upcoming Disney Lion King prequel. However, there was never any similar antagonism between the two civil rights leaders. Yes, Malcolm X was publicly critical of King’s non-violent stance, which he believed did Black people a disservice against such a brutal enemy. But King never publicly returned this invective; perhaps he considered Malcolm’s harsh words less a concern than the racists hurling firebombs at his home.
MLK/X depicts the wide range of foes who were dedicated to stopping King’s work, truly by any means necessary. Donal Logue in particular stands out as a seething Senator Strom Thurmond, who shares a Jim Crow-era Southern gentleman’s familial comfort with Black people just so long as they keep “in their place.” Later, having abandoned a Democratic Party he feels betrayed men like him, he declares, “The Republican Party will come to represent all the values that make America great.” That might’ve once seemed over-the-top but it hits much differently today.
Genius does offer some intriguing and surprising contrasts between King and Malcolm X. Young Malcolm has a warm relationship with his father, Earl Little, an outspoken community leader who was likely murdered by white supremacists (his death was officially ruled a “suicide”). Earl’s death and his mother’s mental illness send Malcolm down a self-destructive path. Conversely, young Martin’s relationship with his father, the self-styled Martin Luther King Sr., is much frostier. Lennie James plays the elder King as domineering, arrogant, and vain. When a lost Malcolm Little becomes Malcolm X, it’s almost a living tribute to Earl Little. Martin’s journey is more fractious: He can’t truly fight for equality until he asserts his independence from Daddy King.
Malcolm X finds a second father in Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad, and the late Ron Cephas Jones, in one of his final performances, gives the Black nationalist leader a tragic depth. His version is a flawed old man too easily manipulated by men who envy Malcolm’s growing prominence.
Rather than seeking a substitute father, King instead forms a band of brothers with Ralph Abernathy (Hubert Point-Du Jour) and Bayard Rustin (Griffin Matthews). Although King receives the bulk of the acclaim for their collective work, that comes at a steep price. Both Abernathy and Rustin would outlive King by decades.
Showrunners Raphael Jackson Jr. and Damione Macedon (both executive producers for Power) deserve praise for avoiding a tedious “great men shape history” narrative. There is much well-deserved attention paid to the women of the movement, including activists Jo Ann Robinson (Millie Capellan) and Ella Baker (Erica Tazel). Coretta Scott King (Weruche Opia) and Betty Shabazz (Jayme Lawson) are more than just supportive spouses, who live on to continue what their slain husbands started — they’re presented as active, equal partners with their husbands. It’s not always easy: King and Malcolm are unfortunately men of their time, but they both learn to accept their wives’ counsel and perhaps recognize the greater burden from discrimination that Black women shoulder.
MLK/X rejects a popular, convenient myth about both King and Malcolm X. King was consistently more radical throughout his career than history cares to remember, while Malcolm X was never some angry preacher of hatred who promoted violence — far from it. In the series, King struggles with his own beliefs, even feeling tempted to keep a gun in the house for his family’s protection. Meanwhile, Malcolm shares King’s optimism about racial progress, even if he disagrees with his tactics.
MLK/X stumbles most when it plays safe, but there are also impressive moments with daring choices. This is best demonstrated in the final episode, when King eventually meets his immortality. During his final moments, he’s completely happy, joking around with his friends, and as he steps out onto that Memphis motel balcony, he’s smiling. It’s a stark and welcome contrast from past depictions of a weary, almost broken King at the end of his life. This is a King with renewed purpose, who’s fully committed to his mission, but also looking forward to quiet moments with his children that a racist’s bullet forever denied him.
Genius: MLK/X premieres February 1 at 9:00 PM ET on National Geographic with two episodes, and streams next-day on Hulu.
Stephen Robinson is a staff writer at Wonkette and theatre maker at Seattle’s Cafe Nordo. Follow him on Twitter @ser1897.