Genius: MLK/X showrunners on behind-the-scenes motivations and how filming in Atlanta helped the show

The filmed-in-Georgia series is streaming on Hulu and Disney+

Genius: MLK/X showrunners speak on behind-the-scenes motivations and how filming in Atlanta helped the show
Genius: MLK/X is streaming on Hulu and Disney+

Photograph courtesy of National Geographic

National Geographic’s award-winning anthology series Genius, which chronicles some of the most innovative and impactful figures in our collective history, took a bold swing in its fourth season. While previous seasons told the story of just one person—Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, and Aretha Franklin respectively—the most recent season, Genius: MLK/X,  parallels and contrasts the life journeys of two iconic Black leaders. Underground Railroad standout Aaron Pierre portrays Malcolm X, while the ever-impressive Kelvin Harrison, Jr., a New Orleans native who most recently starred in Chevalier and Cyrano, plays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

When Woman King and Love & Basketball director Gina Prince-Bythewood and her equally multihyphenate husband Reggie Bythewood, creator/showrunner of Apple TV+ teen basketball series Swagger, were approached about featuring Dr. King for Genius, they suggested the series tackle them both figures. This was inspired by Dr. King and Malcolm X’s only documented meeting on March 26, 1964 at the U.S. Capitol as the Senate debated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Two works based on this moment helped fuel the series: Jeff Stetson’s play The Meeting and historian Peniel E. Joseph’s in-depth 2020 book The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Stetson was an executive producer on MLK/X, while Joseph was part of the series’s academic “think tank” and even helped pen a couple of the eight episodes.

Steering the ship fell into the hands of showrunners Raphael Jackson Jr. and Damione Macedon, whose previous producing credits include the Starz series Power. Atlanta magazine caught up with the duo to discuss all-things MLK/X, now available to binge in its entirety on both Hulu and Disney+. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Genius: MLK/X showrunners speak on behind-the-scenes motivations and how filming in Atlanta helped the show
Aaron Pierre and Jayme Lawson as Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz

Photograph by Richard DuCree/National Geographic

What were your goals or game plan going into MLK/X?

Damione Macedon: What’s interesting is we had a whole plan going into it based on our knowledge at the time of Martin and Malcolm and Betty [Shabazz] and Coretta [Scott King]. I have a degree in history, and I was quite confident that I knew enough at the time to guide us through the story. Very, very quickly as we started doing our research, we put together a think tank with Reggie and Gina Bythewood. We got together a group of academic scholars who had written about Martin and Malcolm and Betty and Coretta for years, and, in some cases, knew them personally. Five minutes into our meeting with them, all of us realized we didn’t know nearly as much [as we thought]. It was a really cool, humbling moment, and we wanted the audience to have that kind of reaction when they watched the series. Every single hour, they can learn something new about who these people were, as human beings, not just the millions and millions of iconic things that they did, and people they touched. We were fascinated by what kind of people they were, what made them laugh, the relationships they had with each other, how they handled the birth of their children, how they handled the ups and downs of public life.

One of the more illuminating aspects of the series is the spotlight placed on the impact of not just their fathers, but their mothers and wives as well.

Raphael Jackson Jr.: It’s impossible for the two of them not to have found strong women as they grew older because of the landmark laid down by their parents and their mothers. It was the easiest thing to see once you lay down the story of why they were chosen by Coretta and Betty, because they sought out strong female representation in their lives that only made them better for what they did and what they were trying to do. So, when you lay that up against the women that helped raise them, it makes sense. We can see why Betty wanted to be with Malcolm and vice versa, and why Coretta wanted to be with Martin and vice versa.

Genius: MLK/X showrunners speak on behind-the-scenes motivations and how filming in Atlanta helped the show
Kelvin Harrison, Jr. and Weruche Opia as Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King

Photograph by Richard DuCree/National Geographic

How did Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (Martin Luther King Jr.), Aaron Pierre (Malcolm X), Weruche Opia (Coretta Scott King), and Jayme Lawson (Betty Shabazz) become these historical figures?

Jackson Jr.: One of the first things that that you see when you sit down with them is how committed they were to the roles and the enormity of taking on this task. And as creators and showrunners, all you can ever hope for or pray for is that you have talent that takes it seriously. Literally, within one second, that was asked and answered. So, for us, it was seeing the passion they had; they were ferocious with reading as much about Martin, Malcolm, Betty, and Coretta as they could. They came to the table with ideas and with conversations, that only enhanced stories that we were trying to get into the writers’ room.

With filming in Georgia, in Atlanta and Macon, how did you keep the story from leaning closer to Dr. King?

Macedon: We never did this specifically where this character gets this amount of page time. We tried to keep that as organic as possible. But what Atlanta brought for us, it cannot be understated on how it helped create this show for us. Filming in Atlanta, we, on one side, had extras. They were our arsenal and some of them had a direct connection to the Civil Rights Movement. We would have extras on our set at times, older extras, that remember marching with Dr. King, being in a barbershop with Dr. King, going to Ebenezer Church. And so that connection was palpable when we were filming. On the flip side of that, which was really illuminating for us, is we filmed Atlanta for everything. So, our New York is in Atlanta, our DC is in Atlanta. [Our Selma, Alabama, we filmed in Macon.] And what we found was, not only was Atlanta overly knowledgeable about the Civil Rights Movement as it related to Martin, they were equally as knowledgeable about Malcolm. We found the community in Atlanta and in the places that we filmed to be so engaged on both sides that it never felt one-sided to us while filming it there. And that’s a true testament to the people of Atlanta, to the community that they built to bring the TV and film industry there. It was great to work with everybody.

All eight episodes of Genius: MLK/X are streaming on Hulu and Disney+.