On Feb. 1, at 8 p.m., NatGeo will launch an eight-part docudrama called "Genius: MLK/X,” and to get a sense of just how deeply radical an idea this is, you might first need to consult the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). (It will also stream on Hulu and Disney+ starting Feb. 2).
The vast website cites just over 500 movies, TV series, episodes and podcasts on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or with his name in their title. On Malcolm X — the other great civil rights leader of the 1950s and early '60s — the database offers just about a dozen.
To be sure, there are certainly plenty of omissions on Malcolm X but all the major productions do appear to be listed: 1992's big screen biopic starring Denzel Washington; the James Earl Jones-narrated documentary from 1972; 1959's five-part documentary reported by a young Mike Wallace, "The Hate that Hate Produced”; and 2019's six-part "Who Killed Malcolm X?”
While far from comprehensive, exact numbers aren't what matters most here. Impressions do, and the one this leaves is irrefutable: TV and movies have embraced King for more than half a century while only sporadically (or grudgingly) acknowledging his most influential rival.
KING AND MALCOLM: EQUALLY IMPORTANT
And now comes NatGeo's Emmy-winning "Genius” franchise, about to forever link them (the first episode will also be simulcast on ABC Thursday night). Deeply admiring of both, "MLK/X” makes the case that King (Kelvin Harrison Jr., "The Trial of the Chicago 7") and Malcolm X (Aaron Pierre, "The Underground Railroad”) were equally important in the run-up to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and ongoing civil rights struggle.
Nevertheless, their styles and philosophies — one essentially pacifist, the other retributive — have effectively tilted history's (or at least Hollywood's) verdict in King's favor in the years since. This "Genius” wants to finally set the record straight.
"MLK/X'' was produced by Raphael Jackson Jr. and Damione Macedon (both worked on "Power” over four seasons), but the veteran showrunners who came up with the idea of linking MLK and Malcolm X are Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood. They first met as writers on the set of "A Different World,” got married in 1988, then went on to direct their own successful indie movies a decade or so later ("Dancing in September,” "Love & Basketball,” respectively, both from 2000). Afterward, they went down separate career tracks but reunited for a 2017 Fox miniseries, "Shots Fired,” about racially charged shootings in a small southern town. "MLK/X'' marks their second major collaboration.
The "Genius” anthology launched in 2017 with a portrait of Albert Einstein (subsequent editions were on Pablo Picasso and Aretha Franklin), and was always meant to be a spotlight on just one transcendent life and career. After the 2020 deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, NatGeo went to Prince-Bythewood and Bythewood for a "Genius” based on MLK, timed to the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.
The Bythewoods, however, said they had a much better idea.
GIVING MALCOLM X HIS DUE
An eight-part look at King alone "was intriguing but the reality is that we really grew up understanding the importance of both leaders,” said Bythewood, 58, in a recent interview.
Prince-Bythewood added that "certainly growing up, and then as young adults” there was a predominant focus in the popular culture on King while Malcom X was "pretty much confined to the history books. Then you get to college and suddenly your eyes are opened up to his importance, too. So often you find yourself having to choose between the two, but now we understand the importance of both. We didn't want to choose anymore.”
Both leaders, Bythewood says, "are in many ways opposite sides of the same coin.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF CORETTA SCOTT KING AND BETTY SHABAZZ
Meanwhile, they pressed NatGeo on another key point, arguing that the men's wives, Coretta Scott King (Weruche Opia, “I May Destroy You”) and Betty Shabazz (Jayme Lawson,“The Woman King”), had critical roles in the civil rights movement, too. "Eight hours gave us an opportunity to expand the breadth of what's been said about them but also amplify their importance,” says Prince-Bythewood. "They weren't just appendages, but absolutely part of the genius behind” their respective spouses. For that reason, this "Genius” portrait is really about four major civil rights figures.
Along with much else, the Bythewoods and their eight-parter set out to explore how MLK and Malcolm X came to be seen as such divergent figures. To a certain extent, that began with the media. In their 2020 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning biography of Malcolm X, "The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X,” the late Newsday editor Les Payne and his daughter, Tamara Payne, write, "As if there could be but one Black leader, the national media regularly contrasted Malcolm the Black separatist with King the integrationist — leaving no doubt that they favored the nonviolent Southern Negro preacher.”
Early in his career, Malcolm X helped sharpen the distinction. The authors, for example, cited an interview he gave with a Boston TV station in the late '50s in which he said “White people follow King, white people pay King, white people subsidize King, white people support King …”
And then, TV news coverage sharpened it even further. Although at times admiring of the fast-emerging and gifted recruiter for the Nation of Islam, Wallace's influential "The Hate that Hate Produced” also saw Malcolm X — then going by the name Malcolm Shabazz — as a menacing separatist who preached the imminent demise of the "evil” white race.
The Paynes and others have long since established that both King and Malcolm X shared a mutual admiration from across that wide ideological divide, even warming to each other. But Payne — who died in 2018, two years before the publication of his book — also argued in a 1989 column for this newspaper that "more than any other leader of the 1960s, Malcolm moved Blacks to consider who they were and whence they came, and to plan for what they could become.”
Bythewood and Prince-Bythewood both acknowledge the importance of the Paynes' book, but say their own case for MLK/X equivalence was largely built by Peniel E. Joseph's 2020 dual-biography, "The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” In this, Joseph argues that both leaders had begun to bridge the divide separating them by the time Malcom X was assassinated in 1965, at the age of 39.
The other inspiration was "The Meeting,” a 1987 play by Jeff Stetson that imagines a "historic” meeting (that never took place) between the pair alone together in a Harlem hotel room, talking about their lives and ideals, and the common ground they shared. Televised on PBS' "American Playhouse” in 1989, "The Meeting '' has been performed on stage many times since. Stetson was brought aboard "MLK/X” as a writer.
1964: HISTORIC MEETING
The miniseries begins with the real-life meeting between King and Malcolm X — the only one they ever had — on the morning of March 26, 1964, in Washington, D.C., just hours before a Senate hearing on President Lyndon B. Johnson's proposed Civil Rights Act.
The meeting was huge news at the time because Malcolm X had recently broken with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad (played here by Ron Cephas Jones, in his final TV role before his death last summer). King and Malcolm X shook hands, then Malcolm X vowed that he would throw "myself into the heart of the civil rights struggle.” With that, the meeting, which lasted a little over two minutes, ended.
Over eight hours, "MLK/X” then toggles between two packed, fraught and inspirational lives. It begins with Malcolm, as the fourth of seven children of Louise Helen Little and Earl Little, both admirers of Pan-African activist Marcus Garvey, then segues to Michael King, whose father demands that his son adopt his own new name, "Martin Luther King.”
Bythewood says both producers wanted to "humanize” their subjects, but also widen the lens to include their partners. When he went to hear Nelson Mandela speak at a fundraising event for the African National Congress in 1990, "the moment that always haunted me was when Betty Shabazz came on stage and met Winnie Mandela,” says Bythewood. "They both ran across the stage then hugged each other and cried, like they were long lost relatives coming together, acknowledging what they had been through, and that their struggles had not been so different.”
That moment, in fact, inspires a real-life scene that closes out these eight hours: Several years after the death of King, Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King meet for the first time in a hallway just before speaking at a Black Caucus Convention event in Gary, Indiana.
"You know,” says King, "Martin really respected Malcolm.”
"Malcolm really respected Martin,” says Shabazz. "What gets overlooked is all the things they have in common.”
ALSO FOR BLACK HISTORY MONTH
THE HARLEM HELLFIGHTERS (History Channel, 9 p.m.)
The 369th Infantry Regiment — the Harlem Hellfighters — spent 191 days in the trenches of France during World War I, and suffered more than 1,500 casualties but as narrator Robin Roberts says here, “their legacy has been overlooked for over 100 years [and] that changes now.” Formed in 1916 as the 15th New York National Guard Regiment, they overcame “the Germans and racism, segregation, and prejudice at home,” per History notes, while this one-hour film spotlights some forgotten stories, like that of James Reese Europe, a popular bandleader, soon to be a Hellfighter standout.
THE SPACE RACE (Nat Geo time TBA, then streaming on Hulu and Disney+ on Feb. 13)
In this 91-minute film, NatGeo promises that "the bright dreams of Afrofuturism become reality … forever redefining what “the right stuff” looks like.” To wit, the astronauts profiled here are Black, and they include: Guion Bluford, now 81, the first African American in space, and a member of four Space Shuttle flights; Ed Dwight, now 90, and the first African American to enter NASA's astronaut training program; Charles Bolden, 77, named in 2009 to become the first African American administrator of NASA; Victor Glover, 47, who piloted SpaceX Crew Dragon to the International Space Station; and Jessica Watkins, 35, who set the record in 2022 for the most time spent in space by a Black woman when she went on a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station.
JAMES BROWN: SAY IT LOUD (A&E, 8 p.m.)
This four-hour portrait — produced by Mick Jagger, "Questlove" Thompson, Tariq "Black Thought” Trotter, among others — promises an exhaustive look at "how Brown persevered through decades of personal demons, racial injustice, and career setbacks to find redemption …” And megafame. With lots (and lots) of commentary (Jagger, Questlove, Bootsy Collins, LL Cool J, Chuck D, and Brown's children Deanna, Yamma and Larry). And yes: Lots of clips, too. — VERNE GAY