Saturday, July 20, 2024

Genius: MLK/X DC Premiere Sparks Powerful Reflections on Legacy and Contemporary Relevance

Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Top left), Aaron Pierre (Top right), Weruche Opia (Bottom left), Jayme Lawson (Bottom right)

What a powerful way to kick off Black History Month with the premiere of the National Geographic docu-drama series Genius: MLK/X. This series delves into the formative years of Martin Luther King Jr. (Kelvin Harris Jr.) and Malcolm X (Aaron Pierre), while also highlighting their wives, Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz. Executive-produced by talented filmmakers Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Price Bythewood, this series transcends a simple retelling of the stories of these iconic leaders—it offers an immersive experience that you won’t want to miss.

To mark the launch of the series, National Geographic initiated a media campaign by hosting a special two-episode screening in an intimate setting in Washington, D.C., at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The event featured a small crowd, including the cast (Kelvin Harrison Jr., Aaron Pierre, Weruche Opia, Jayme Lawson), executive producers (Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Price Bythewood), and showrunners (Raphael Jackson Jr. and Damione Macedon). Following the screening, a Q&A panel moderated by Jonathan Capehart (MSNBC & Washington Post) delved into various topics about the show. Taji Mag was on the scene on the red carpet, conducting brief interviews with those in attendance. 

Interview with Genius MLK/X series consultant Peniel Joseph
Red carpet interview with Genius: MLK/X showrunners Raphael Jackson Jr. and Damione Macedon

Following the screening, Taji Mag was able to do a few interviews with the cast and the executive producers to discuss their connection to the show and how they believe the dynamics of their relationship offer valuable insights for contemporary partnerships.

Felipe: What lessons do you see in their relationship that hold relevance for modern-day partnerships?

Weruche Opia: That you can’t just throw people away. Our society often operates on a three-strikes-and-you’re-out mentality, a sort of micro-society approach. However, love is far more intricate than that; it’s a complex and multifaceted emotion. Moreover, I believe love is a conscious decision.

In the portrayal of this narrative, we witness a profound truth—that these individuals made a continuous choice to love each other. It wasn’t a one-time decision; it was a daily commitment to choose each other, even on the days when it might have been easier not to. The lasting impact of their choices is evident.

The concept of “microwave love” falls short in capturing the essence of relationships like Malcolm and Betty, or Martin and Coretta. Such deep connections require a sustained and deliberate effort. 

Jayme: I also find that we often throw around terms like “couple goals” and “power couple,” and everyone aspires to embody these ideals. However, it’s crucial to pause and recognize the reality of what those actually look like. It’s work and there are some actual sacrifices. I love that this show does a good job of creating space to showcase the genuine ebb and flow, the highs and lows, of their love stories. It’s not always a smooth journey, and they didn’t always see eye to eye. Yet, what stands out is their decision and choice to continue choosing each other, despite the challenges.

Daddy King, played by Lennie James, talks with Martin and Coretta, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Weruche Opia, in GENIUS: MLK/X. (National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

Kelvin: Oh wow, that’s an interesting question, that caught me off guard a bit. It’s quite loaded, but I genuinely believe there’s an unmatched loyalty between them. Choosing to be in a partnership means sharing a vision and purpose, essentially overlapping lives, finances, sometimes children, and even blood. One of the writers’ brilliant interpretations of Coretta was her saying, “I knew what I signed up for”.

Supporting, loving, and building your partner is profound, but it also involves challenging them, reminding them of their identity and the journey they’ve chosen. It’s about revealing that there’s more to our present, even if it’s obscured by challenges. We have to re-inspire and paint a hopeful picture beyond the fog, nurturing the belief that there’s still hope. Keeping that hope alive is essential in a relationship, and I think both these men and their respective wives and partners did exactly that for each other.

Aaron: Yeah, I really couldn’t add anything more to that. It was beautifully articulated and eloquent. On a potentially lighter, anecdotal note, I remember Jamie Lawson, who plays Dr. Betty Shabazz, and I used to sit, talk, and reflect. We had this thing where we’d say, “We want that Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz kind of love”. We were aiming to find that in 2023, which was the time, and now, in 2024, we’re still hopeful about it.

DDF: How did you go about making sure that we saw the inspiration and motivation they got from their religious practices and background? 

Reggie Bythewood: After conducting a bit of research, looking into the think tanks, it’s fascinating how faith-based both of them were. It’s easy to think they were vastly different—Christianity versus Islam. However, upon closer examination, their faith emerges as a significant commonality in their movement. When you analyze it, you realize they were more aligned in that aspect than different.

So, we delved into the research, allowing the actors to pull from what they needed, trusting everyone in the process to step up and contribute their part. It’s remarkable how faith served as a unifying force, shaping the movement for both of them.

DDF: What do you anticipate individuals unfamiliar with the historical impact and background of MLK and Malcolm X will gain from watching this series?

Gina Prince Bythewood: Certainly, our aim is to inspire and empower people. We entered the project with a fair amount of knowledge and were surprised by how much we learned, especially at a time when our history is being erased and rewritten. The importance of having these narratives out there cannot be overstated. We were intentional about the research, striving to get it right and present the truth on screen because our current battle is to safeguard the truth, ensuring it is accessible globally, not just locally.

We recognize the global impact of these two men and two women, a significance that has been overlooked and erased. Therefore, our commitment to influencing and safeguarding the truth about our icons, leaders, and inspirations is more crucial now than ever.

Malcolm X, played by Aaron Pierre, and Betty X, played by Jayme Lawson, in GENIUS: MLK/X. (National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

DDF: What’s your personal connection to the stories? 

Gina: We have two sons, both grown now. However, during their upbringing, we placed a framed picture of that iconic handshake between the two men (MLK and Malcolm X)  in each of their rooms. This image has been a part of our existence and in our minds for a considerable time. The chance to now narrate both their stories, emphasizing the significance of these two men to the movement and, equally important, to each other and to each other’s genius, feels like a long-awaited opportunity.

Reggie: Decades ago, I was in Harlem when Mandela visited, and I had the opportunity to witness Betty Shabazz running across the street and stage to embrace Winnie Mandela like long-lost sisters during their initial meeting. This connection has always lingered with me, influencing and inspiring us in various ways as we crafted the narrative.

Additionally, in the 80s, I attended a play called The Meeting, written by playwright Jeff Stetson, which portrayed a fictional meeting between Malcolm and Martin. Taking on this project, it was truly remarkable to collaborate with Jeff, who wrote the pilot for Season Four of MLKX. The synergy of these experiences and influences played a significant role in shaping our approach to the series.

Malcolm X, played by Aaron Pierre, preaches in GENIUS: MLK/X. (National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

Thoughts on the Series: 

Certainly, numerous films and TV shows have depicted these historical figures, but what sets this series apart is the showrunners and their team’s ability to present the narrative in an intriguing and captivating manner. The series excels in its meticulous attention to detail, especially in the dialogue, which proves to be a standout feature. Commendation is also due for the exceptional contributions of the music, set production, costume, and hair departments, all of which enhance the overall viewing experience.

The young cast deserves praise for their portrayal, creating tense moments, showcasing chemistry, and seamlessly transitioning from younger to older versions of the characters. I would rate the series 8/10 for its compelling storytelling and portrayal of these iconic figures.

Dapper Dr Feel

Felipe Patterson aka Dapper Dr. Feel, #BlackLoveConvo & Entertainment | @fdapperdr Dapper Dr. Feel is a Entertainment journalist and member of the Critics Choice Association and African American Film Association.

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