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'Genius' star Aaron Pierre: MLK, Malcolm X fought for 'integrity of humanity'

Aaron Pierre's "Genius: MLK/X" premieres Thursday. Photo courtesy of Nat Geo
Aaron Pierre's "Genius: MLK/X" premieres Thursday. Photo courtesy of Nat Geo

NEW YORK, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- Aaron Pierre says his new limited series Genius: MLK/X shows how activists Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X passionately tried to achieve similar goals using different tactics in the 1950s and '60s.

Premiering Thursday on National Geographic and streaming Friday on Disney+ and Hulu, the fourth installment in the Genius anthology series explores the formative years of the U.S. civil-rights icons. The men met only once, by chance in 1964, and were assassinated three years apart, both at age 39.

Pierre (Old, FOE) plays Malcolm X, while Chevalier and Elvis actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays King. Weruche Opia plays King's wife, Coretta Scott King, and Jayme Lawson plays Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X's wife.

"What we are highlighting and celebrating is how, although they were on parallel paths toward the same objective, there was a synchronicity and there was a synergy. What they both prided themselves on and were led by was the integrity of humanity and dignity of humanity," Pierre told UPI in a recent Zoom interview.

Harrison and Pierre said they worked hard to get inside their characters' hearts and minds instead of attempting to duplicate their well-known public personas.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. stars in "Genius: MLK/X," premiering Thursday. Photo courtesy of Nat Geo
Kelvin Harrison Jr. stars in "Genius: MLK/X," premiering Thursday. Photo courtesy of Nat Geo

"We really tried to dive into that investigation of what it means to be a man, what it meant to be a man in the 1950s and '60s, what it means to be a young man and to come of age and become your own man outside of our fathers and our mothers and the community leaders that were in front of us at the time," Harrison said.

"Outside of the law, what does it mean to be a man? What does the law define as a man?"

Kelvin Harrison Jr. attends the premiere of "Chevalier" at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2022. File Photo by Chris Chew/UPI
Kelvin Harrison Jr. attends the premiere of "Chevalier" at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2022. File Photo by Chris Chew/UPI

The fact-based series is intended to accurately reflect -- and clear up misconceptions about -- what really happened decades ago during this tumultuous time in American history.

"What is the myth and why is that the myth?," Harrison said, particularly the stories about Malcolm X.

Aaron Pierre arrives on the red carpet at the "Old" New York premiere at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2021 in New York City. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI
Aaron Pierre arrives on the red carpet at the "Old" New York premiere at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2021 in New York City. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI

Harrison said they spoke with historians who came onto the set and discussed with executive producers, show-runners and other cast members how these men became icons.

The actors did their research, too.

Jayme Lawson arrives on the red carpet at the Chaplin Award Gala at Lincoln Center in New York City on April 24. File Photo by Gabriele Holtermann/UPI
Jayme Lawson arrives on the red carpet at the Chaplin Award Gala at Lincoln Center in New York City on April 24. File Photo by Gabriele Holtermann/UPI

"We read the autobiographies. We read The Sword and the Shield," which chronicled the men's lives, Pierre said. "We watched the documentaries. We went to Harlem and all these places and we lived and breathed -- as best we could -- in those stomping grounds where they existed, where they lived, where they were leaders."

Pierre and Harrison -- who are also voicing Mufasa and Scar in The Lion King animated prequel -- said working on MLK/X has brought personal and professional growth.

"It taught me how to lean into trusting myself, more than I've ever done before -- trusting my capacity, trusting the endurance and stamina I need to portray certain roles," Pierre said.

"It deepened even more so my understanding of operating from a place of love, community, relationships, friendships, family and safeguarding the well-being of those closest to me."

Harrison said he took King's speeches and writings to heart.

"Dr. King talks about this sense of 'nobodyness,' how Black people have this unfortunate sense of nobodyness and this just reminded me that I've felt like that before. But it's also not mine. This is something I've thought and a feeling that has been projected on to me and I've internalized it and made it my identity," he said.

"This opportunity has reassured me that I do have a path. I do have a worthiness that needs to be seen. I do have a purpose here. I do have something to say."

The actor said he still feels overwhelmed by the fact he and Pierre get to play historic titans in such a thoughtful, high-profile project.

"For both of us to be young Black guys navigating Hollywood and trying to tell important stories, but also trying to get in really incredible scene work and work with great actors? What an incredible opportunity," he said.