Sixty years on from their only meeting, why it’s time to reassess Luther King and Malcolm X

“My whole career has been about racism and injustice,” says Kelvin Harrison Jr. “My first job was 12 Years a Slave, my second was Roots.” Being on the set of the former set a tone for his life, he says, after coming from an educational system that didn’t want to “divulge the atrocities of what this country is built on”. Since those striking entries in his early CV, the New Orleans actor has been turning heads in almost every role, most recently as blues great BB King in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis. Now he’s taking on an American icon, Martin Luther King Jr, in the eight-part instalment of National Geographic’s Genius: MLK/X.

MLK/X dramatises the parallel lives of King and his radical counterpart Malcolm X. For Harrison, it was intimidating. “Dr King is more famous than Michael Jackson,” he says, adding that the singer wouldn’t have been who he was if it wasn’t for the murdered Civil Rights leader. Yet the 29-year-old notes, every time he’s seen King – who was 39 when he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968 – portrayed on screen, “it’s been an older actor, someone with a bigger resumé, more mature. I immediately retreated and got so insecure and fell into my own imposter syndrome. I was like, ‘I can’t do this’”.

Like previous series of Genius, which explored the lives of Einstein, Picasso and Aretha Franklin, MLK/X is richly detailed historical drama with an emphasis on character and performance. One of the reasons Harrison took the role, he says, is because the British actor Aaron Pierre had already signed up to play Malcolm X. He recalls seeing Pierre playing the escaped slave Caesar in Barry Jenkins’s poetic, moving adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. “I remember sitting watching it in one of my friends’ living rooms, and the presence he holds and the weight he carries from our experience is so profound.”

It’s true. Pierre has a natural gravitas on screen. Jenkins, the Oscar-winning director of Moonlight, saw it at once, plucking him if not from obscurity, then from his debut stage role, as a dashing Cassio alongside André Holland’s Othello and Mark Rylance’s Iago at the London’s Globe theatre in 2018. “That was a very surreal moment,” Pierre tells me. He and Jenkins, he says, now “have a very deep friendship. I consider him a big brother”. In fact, both Pierre and Harrison will appear this year as the voice leads in Jenkins’s long-awaited prequel to The Lion King. It pits the two as warring royal brothers Mufasa (Pierre) and Taka (Harrison), before the latter takes on the identity of the usurping Scar. “Barry has a way of making everything look beautiful,” Harrison says. “I’m sorry to everyone else, but it’s the most artistic and exciting Disney movie I think I’ve seen.”

Kelvin Harrison Jr as Martin Luther King Jr

“The man had huge lungs”: Kelvin Harrison Jr as Martin Luther King Jr – Richard DuCree/National Geographic

On the surface, MLK/X sets two oppositional figures on collision course towards their one and only meeting on March 26, 1964, at the seat of the US Congress in Washington DC, where, inside the Capitol, the Senate debated the passage of the Civil Rights Act, as Southern Democrats attempted to filibuster it out of existence.

Prior to their meeting, Malcolm X had openly criticised King’s strategy of non-violent resistance in the face of individual, state- and government-backed violence, in which Civil Rights activists were attacked with guns, bombs, boots, bottles, bricks, dogs, batons and water cannons. He blamed King for putting defenceless children at risk on marches and suggested that black people had a right to defend themselves “by any means necessary”. He was, of course, labelled “dangerous” for this perspective. “I think he was operating from a place of love,” Pierre says. “There is a lot of misinformation out there about both men and I think what this [series] does is reconfirm that they are not opposing forces.”

King, though, must have been stung by Malcolm X’s criticisms. “It’s hurtful when anyone you respect says something about you that is not positive,” Harrison says, noting that King’s approach was clearly strategic. “He’s trying to make sure we weren’t blowing the game.” The drama leans heavily on Peniel E Joseph’s twin history The Sword and the Shield, as well as Jeff Stetson’s 1987 play The Meeting, which imagines a secret hotel-room encounter between the two men. Stetson wrote the show’s opening episode.

Harrison says he had to have a negotiation with himself about how far towards an impersonation it was possible to go without it feeling like one, especially in relation to King’s voice, familiar to so many from his “I have a dream” speech in Washington in 1963. “I did decide ultimately that I wanted to get as close to the voice as possible,” he says. There was a biological component to think about, though. “The man had huge lungs,” he laughs.

British actor Aaron Pierre as Malcolm X in Genius: MLK/X

“I walked how he walked, gestured the way he gestured”: British actor Aaron Pierre as Malcolm X – Richard DuCree/National Geographic

For his part, Pierre watched countless hours of footage of Malcolm X and immersed himself deeply in the role. “I wouldn’t describe myself as a method actor,” he says, but “maybe two thirds of the crew didn’t even know I was from London, because I stayed in accent the whole time. I walked how he walked, gestured the way he gestured.” After filming ended, he says, “it took me a while to relearn my own gestures, because I’d spent six months trying to not imitate, but embody him”.

The actor grew up on a council estate in West Croydon (a stone’s throw from where Stormzy comes from, in south London) and was able to draw on being subjected to racism “multiple times” to inform his portrayal – “it’s a deeply hurtful experience, and it’s a deeply saddening experience,” he says. Yet he insists, “I’m fortunate to have grown up where I did – acceptance and understanding of race, heritage and religion wasn’t something I had to learn in my adulthood. I had friends who were Muslim, who were Christian, who were Rastafarian, it was just normality for me.”

He’s not the only Brit in the production. I May Destroy You’s Weruche Opia plays King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, and Lennie James, a veteran of Line of Duty and The Walking Dead, plays King’s father, Martin Luther King Sr. James was one of the first wave of British actors to try their hand in America, partly because of the lack of roles for black actors. Pierre notes that in theatre in the UK, “I’ve always felt I could play any role, but in terms of television and film, my opportunities seemed considerably more limited”. Harrison says that working with the Brits was a revelation. “I felt like I came into this with a lot of discipline,” he laughs. “But those are real thespians.”

Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X shake hands in Washington DC, March 26, 1964

The meeting: Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X shake hands in Washington DC, March 26, 1964 – Universal Images Group/Marion S Trikoskor

As for his own experience of racism, he says, “I’ve always looked at people as, we’re just brothers and sisters, that’s it,” but he has experienced “people not giving me the same respect… I’ve also experienced a lot of tokenism. Now is that blatant racism? Not necessarily.” But, he adds: “I know it’s still in the air. I can feel it.” He won’t always call it out, he says, unless he thinks, “This is just disrespectful and inappropriate”. He notes that because he grew up in the 2000s, his experience of racism “is more nuanced. I don’t get it as explicitly as we get to see it in the show”.

Of course, both King and Malcolm X had direct experience of white supremacists – Malcolm’s father had been repeatedly threatened and died in a suspicious streetcar accident when his son was six, which his mother maintained was a racist murder. King’s family home was bombed when he led a city-wide bus boycott against segregation in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. I wonder if Harrison thinks that it is still a significant problem in American society, given that clear links have been established between the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, and white supremacist organisations. “Yeah, of course it is still a problem,” he says. “There are people out there that believe that and feel that way.”

There is a “looming anxiety” about the possibility of a second Trump presidency in his “internal conversations”, he says, but he adds: “I think it’s one of those things, where you have to be really patient and you have to listen to what everyone has to say. And just see where we end up. I am not a believer in allowing the anxiety to create a new monster.”

Genius: MLK/X begins on National Geographic on Saturday 3 February at 9pm

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