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‘Genius: MLK/X’ Offers Portraits of the Icons as Vital Young Men

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are among American history’s most thoroughly chronicled figures, their voices and mannerisms captured forever on recording after recording, their lives picked over in book after book.

By himself, Malcolm X has been the subject of two Pulitzer-winning biographies in the past 13 years and just last year Jonathan Eig’s “King: A Life” landed a spot on Barack Obama’s yearly best-books list. Both men adorn countless T-shirts, posters and memes. They aren’t just people; they’re also symbols — of civil rights, of social progress, of a decade that saw many of its heroes murdered.

But symbols don’t make for particularly compelling drama. So when Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Aaron Pierre signed on to play King and Malcolm X, respectively, in the new National Geographic series “Genius: MLK/X,” which premiered earlier this month, they knew their imperative was to make their iconic characters as human as possible and leave more famous portrayals in the past.

“The first thing I had to do, and the first thing I needed everyone around me to do, was to stop speaking about them as icons,” Harrison said in a video interview last month alongside Pierre. “I had to live in the moment that they existed. They did not know who they were or where they were going.”

Gina Prince-Bythewood, who, with her husband, Reggie Rock Bythewood, are among the executive producers of the series, put it this way: “We wanted to take them off the T-shirts and make them real and tangible for an audience. And to do that, you need to show their humanity.”

Jayme Lawson, as Betty Shabazz, and Pierre in “Genius.” The series emphasizes the strength and support of the men’s wives.Credit…Richard DuCree/National Geographic

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