‘Genuis: MLK/X’ Creators Talk Humanizing Civil Rights Icons

‘Genuis: MLK/X’ Creators Talk Humanizing Civil Rights Icons February 22, 2024

In the latest installment of National Geographic’s acclaimed series “Genius,” producers Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood bring to life the complex narratives of two towering figures of the Civil Rights Movement: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Through meticulous research and a deep personal connection to the subject matter, the Bythewoods offer viewers a fresh perspective on these iconic leaders.

‘Genius: MLK/X” artwork courtesy of NatGeo.

For Reggie Rock Bythewood, the genesis of this project was rooted in personal experiences and moments of profound significance. Reflecting on a play he saw in the 1980s called “The Meeting,” which depicted a fictional encounter between Dr. King and Malcolm X, Bythewood recalls how the ideologies shared in that play resonated with him over the years. Additionally, a poignant encounter watching Dr. Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s wife, and Winnie Mandela greet each other left an indelible mark, underscoring the enduring relevance of these historical figures.

“In many ways, it was life preparing us for this before it came to us,” he said, referring to that moment. “There were things that we talked about and like things that we experienced.”

Gina Prince-Bythewood further emphasizes the personal connection to the material, noting how their two sons grew up with a framed picture of the iconic handshake between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. This familial connection underscores the importance of presenting both figures as integral to the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement, challenging the notion that one must choose between their ideologies.

“It’s been in our mindset for along the fact that so often, we’re told we have to choose between the two whose ideology do you want to follow?” she said. “We did not want people to have to choose but they were both integral to the movement. They were both geniuses.”

When approached by Nat Geo and Imagine to helm the fourth season of “Genius” focusing on Dr. King, the Bythewoods seized the opportunity to delve into the lives of both leaders, showcasing their genius and the interplay of their ideas. By presenting both perspectives, the series highlights the complexity of their relationship and underscores their mutual importance to the movement.

Central to the success of “Genius: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X” is the stellar cast, led by Kelvin Harrison and Aaron Pierre. The Bythewoods were deliberate in casting actors who not only possessed the necessary talent but also embodied the youthfulness and passion of the historical figures they portrayed. Harrison and Pierre, along with the rest of the cast, rose to the challenge, infusing their performances with authenticity and depth.

The timing of the series, premiering during Black History Month, adds an extra layer of significance. While undoubtedly a well-planned decision, the Bythewoods note the importance of highlighting these stories during a month dedicated to celebrating Black history and culture. The feedback thus far has been overwhelmingly positive, with viewers appreciating the portrayal of King and Malcolm X as real-life individuals rather than mere icons.

As the series finale approaches, the Bythewoods are gratified by the response from audiences. Through screenings and online interactions, viewers have expressed appreciation for the humanization of these historical figures and the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of their lives and legacies. By presenting Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X as multifaceted individuals, “Genius” offers a compelling exploration of their enduring impact on the Civil Rights Movement and beyond.

“Genius: MLK/X” is now streaming on NatGeo, Hulu, Disney+.

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