‘Genius: MLK/X’ Dutifully Covers the Basics of Two Icons You’re Better Off Studying Elsewhere

Despite living in the same era and working toward similar goals, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X only met once. Fittingly, they came together at the U.S. Capitol, where both men worked to ensure the Civil Rights Act of 1964 earned Congressional approval. The meeting was courteous, though not without risk, and its brevity was considered unsurprising at the time. King, a Christian minister, and Malcolm X, who had left the Nation of Islam to continue preaching his Muslim faith independently, were both Black leaders and human rights activists, but their methods and associations mostly kept them on parallel tracks. Moreover, it would’ve been easy to assume this was just the first time they would meet, not the only time.

Tragedy made a reunion impossible, and their solo encounter has sparked continued reflections on what could’ve been from historians, authors, and artists of all kinds. The latest is National Geographic’s “Genius: MLK/X,” the fourth season of the anthology drama that previously focused its lens on Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, and Aretha Franklin. Cramming two titans into one season (especially within the “Genius” franchise, which has never, in any capacity, lived up to its name) was likely the first warning sign that “MLK/X” may not be the definitive take on either icon, but it’s still surprising how little the eight episodes have to say about either man. More CliffsNotes than textbook, “MLK/X” could work as an outline for an introductory course on King (inconsistently embodied by Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Malcolm (Aaron Pierre, in a slightly stronger turn), so long as the teacher is willing to cite additional sources along the way, rather than let the video play through on its own. But it’s vastly inferior to the plethora of historical narratives available during this (or any) Black History Month. And as entertainment, it’s quite bland.

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“MLK/X” starts with the bane of modern television — an “in media res” opening — depicting that symbolic 1964 meeting between King and X, before leaping back to their childhoods. Thankfully, the new season of “Genius” doesn’t apply its typical structure to both subjects. Where there was once two timelines, one following a Young Einstein or Picasso, and the other tracking them when they’re older, now there are… still two timelines, but only one for each man. They proceed chronologically, bluntly emphasizing King and Malcolm’s parallel developments: Both are shown with overbearing fathers. Both are shown discovering their public-speaking skills on the fly. Both face overt racial discrimination, and both bristle when they’re told to accept it.

Such comparisons are more exhausting than revealing, especially by the time King’s graduation from Morehouse College is cast against Malcolm’s release from prison. While the show makes clear how Malcolm discovered and devoted himself to his faith while behind bars, King’s spiritual commitment isn’t captured so cleanly. (His father looms larger here than King himself has said.) Really, quite few of their implied motivations are illustrated with care. The death of King’s grandmother is staged suddenly and shoddily, eliciting groans and confusion when it’s supposed to explain a young Martin’s suicide attempt. Malcolm’s high school speech for class president is meant to show him coming into his own as a speaker, finding his voice while processing its power, but the execution — from his words to the staging — conveys none of that. Instead, it sets up the audience for jarring heartbreak, when his teacher congratulates him, asks what he wants to be when he grows up, and then shoots down his dreams while calling him the N-word.

Bearing witness to Black pain becomes a troubling trend as the episodes progress. King’s historic march from Selma is reduced to a woman getting brutally clubbed in the face by a police officer, as he’s heard shouting, “Stop resisting!” King’s 1960 Atlanta sit-in with students cedes time to watching white department store patrons shove, choke, and harass Black protesters. Malcolm’s atypical fury over New York police assaulting Hinton Johnson is highlighted alongside the victim’s broken, bleeding body. Now, considering both Malcolm and King met violent ends, one could argue acknowledging the growing violence all around them is necessary, and I wouldn’t argue. But “MLK/X” leans on these images for the significance and weight it can’t create through compelling arguments, pointed contradictions, or other non-violent conflict.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Martin Luther King Jr. in GENIUS: MLK/X
Kelvin Harrison Jr. in “Genius: MLK/X”Courtesy of National Geographic / Richard DuCree

Adapted by Jeff Stetson — both from his 1987 stage play, “The Meeting,” about a fictional conversation between MLK and Malcolm X, and Peniel E. Joseph’s 2020 book “The Sword and the The Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” — the series lacks a cogent message for modern audiences. It may exist, somewhere within the series, but it’s muddled by the repeated mishandling of events and characters. While happy to repeatedly depict Coretta Scott King (Weruche Opia) and Betty Shabazz (Jayme Lawson) being shut out by their husbands or cast aside by their fellow activists, “MLK/X” only has time to pity their plight, rather than give them distinct voices of their own. (Even their meeting in the finale only allows each woman to dryly recap what we know about their husbands.) Elijah Muhammad (played by the late Ron Cephas Jones) is similarly pacified — a silly old man, easily swayed by his staff — and various other figures, from Bayard Rustin (Griffin Matthews) to Strom Thurmond (Donal Logue), are mere mouthpieces for gauche exposition, whether they’re broadly explaining their points (“Non-violence isn’t a strategy,” Rustin says. “It’s a way of life.”) or straining to connect past villainy to the present. (“The Republican Party will come to represent all the values that make America great,” Thurmond says, underlining those last three words as he says them.)

If you’re utterly ignorant of America’s original sin — or somehow think Republicans are here to help rectify it — then perhaps “MLK/X” will pass along some meaningful knowledge. But as it stands, these eight hours would be better spent with any number of related projects. To get a fuller picture of the FBI’s wire-tapping and surveillance habits, watch Sam Pollard’s 2020 documentary “MLK/FBI” (available on Hulu); for an assessment of King and Malcolm from an actual genius, check out the James Baldwin-inspired “I Am Not Your Negro” (on Hulu and Prime Video); Spike Lee’s “Four Little Girls” (also on Hulu and Prime Video) provides striking context for the horrifying events in Alabama that spurred King and Malcolm’s urgent advocacy for the Civil Rights Act; and then there’s the well-known yet vital options like “Selma” and “Malcolm X.”

Still, if I had to pick just one to recommend (for anyone who’s already seen the last two suggestions, that is), it would be Regina King’s Oscar-nominated 2020 film, “One Night in Miami.” Like “MLK/X,” the movie was adapted from a stage play by the same author (this time, Kemp Powers, who’s also co-directed Pixar’s “Soul” and “Across the Spider-Verse”), and it imagines what could happen if ’60s era Black visionaries were put in the same room together. “One Night in Miami” doesn’t include Martin Luther King Jr.; its four voices belong to Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Cassius Clay, and Sam Cooke. But their comparisons and contradictions are elicited with precision and purpose; their discussions can be as funny as they are charged; their characters are convincing and wholly formed people, and this two-hour fictionalized meeting carries more of a visceral impact than any moment in “MLK/X.” “Miami” is exactly the kind of thought experiment that feels pertinent and exciting, whereas the latest season of “Genius” can’t imagine anything we don’t already know.

Grade: D+

“Genius: MLK/X” premieres Thursday, February 1 at 9 p.m. ET on National Geographic. New episodes will be released weekly and available on Hulu each Friday.

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