Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Aaron Pierre on MLK and MalcomX
Latin Times/Courtesy Nat Geo

The fourth season of the acclaimed Nat Geo "Genius" series focuses on American civil rights icons Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Titled "Genius: MLK/X," this installment is a departure from earlier seasons as it features two central figures instead of one. The series explores their formative years, achievements, philosophies, and the impact they had on the civil rights movement.

Their parallel narratives, weaving through the fabric of America's civil rights era, are etched deeply into the nation's consciousness. Actors Aaron Pierre and Kelvin Harrison Jr. were terrified, excited, and proud, at the same time, through the process of bringing these icons to life.

In an interview with The Latin Times, both actors spoke candidly about the initial hesitation and fear they experienced upon being offered their roles. "It's a scary thing," Pierre admitted, reflecting on his role as Malcolm X. He described a deep-seated fear, not just of portraying an icon but of whether he possessed the "stamina, durability, and capacity" to do justice to such a complex figure.

"I took all of those elements of fear and trepidation, and I made them my own in a way that propelled me forward and to go head first into what I feared, and you know, embark on this portrayal of Malcom X," he added.

Harrison Jr., portraying Martin Luther King Jr., echoed this sentiment. His initial reaction was to decline the role, feeling it was a "beautiful opportunity for someone else." This reluctance underscores the immense responsibility felt by actors stepping into the shoes of historical giants.

Fear and Humanity

Our conversation delved into the essence of fear and uncertainty, both in the actors' experiences and in the lives of the men they portray. Harrison highlighted a poignant moment in the show: King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. "His reaction wasn't joy or pride, which I'm sure he also felt. What he told his wife when she asked him if he knew all the things that could come from that was, 'Yes, more enemies'."

MLK was only 35 years old when he became the youngest man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He turned over the prize money of $54,123 to the furtherance of the civil rights movement. Harrison found the moment compelling, a reflection of the constant battle against societal resistance and the inner turmoil of a leader striving for justice.

Pierre, too, spoke of challenges, not just in embodying Malcolm X's public persona but in capturing the nuances of his private fears and struggles. He found guidance in Malcolm's speeches, particularly "The Ballot or the Bullet," which he listened to daily to capture Malcolm's essence: his fearlessness, intelligence, and love for his people. Also, his cadence.

Intimate Moments and Personal Connections

Harrison, a native of New Orleans, found resonance in King's Southern roots, particularly through YouTube clips of King's conversations with President Lyndon B. Johnson. "I find them to be so fascinating because that is a space where his personality really shows. His playfulness is joy," he described. "I used touchstones from those calls to drop me back into him every chance I got."

Pierre also emphasized the importance of Malcolm X's more personal aspects, exploring beyond his public persona to understand the man himself. He described the process as "challenging" and demanding their "very best" every day.

Relevance and Legacy

As our interview progressed, the conversation naturally gravitated towards the enduring relevance of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Their struggles and achievements are not just historical footnotes; they continue to inspire and inform the ongoing fight for racial equality and social justice, as the actors highlighted.

"Its not only about Black people; it's about Latinos too. Martin described as nobody else has done the sense of 'nobodyness' that minorities feel in this country," said Harrison. "In his mind, he only has one option (...), and it is to say I no longer accept that as my truth, my future, for my kids, or for any of my people. It is something powerful and real."

In the context of National Black History Month, "Genius: MLK/X" serves as a powerful reminder of the enduring impact of these leaders, their legacy and the work there is still agead. As Pierre and Harrison navigated their fears and uncertainties in portraying Malcolm X and King, they inadvertently mirrored the very human anxieties and doubts that these historical figures must have faced in their lifetimes.

Beside Pierre and Harrison in the title roles are Weruche Opia, as Coretta Scott King, and Betty Shabazz, as Jayme Lawson. This installment also marks a shift in platform, moving from National Geographic to Disney+ for its premiere.

© 2024 Latin Times. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.