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‘Genius: MLK/X’ presents a split-screen view of the civil-rights movement

<i>Richard DuCree/National Geographic</i><br/>Kelvin Harrison Jr.
Richard DuCree/National Geographic
Kelvin Harrison Jr.

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — The fourth edition of National Geographic’s “Genius” series is essentially a two-for-one proposition, following parallel stories about the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. “Genius: MLK/X” collectively presents a richly detailed look back at the civil-rights movement, while bogging down in the early going with its alternating split-screen structure before rallying toward the end.

The principal behind-the-scenes producer is Jeff Stetson, whose play “The Meeting” imagined an encounter between the two leaders, who saw the path to progress in very different ways yet remain linked in our consciousness as their lives were both cut violently short a few years apart.

After seasons devoted to Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso and Aretha Franklin, this installment of “Genius” begins with King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and X (Aaron Pierre) meeting briefly in Washington in 1964, during advocacy for the Civil Rights Act, and smartly expands its focus to devote ample attention to their respective wives, Coretta Scott King (Weruche Opia) and Betty Shabazz (Jayme Lawson).

The opening episodes then jump back to their early lives and rather fastidiously go about documenting what brought them to that point, a section with less to offer those who have read books or seen any number of movies and documentaries about either or both of them, including such relatively recent fare as “One Night in Miami” and “MLK/FBI.”

The level of drama, if not the pacing, picks up in the third episode with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the arrival of Bayard Rustin (Griffin Matthews), the colorful March on Washington organizer who recently received his own biographical portrayal in “Rustin.”

The story feels most urgent in the later chapters, advancing into the tumultuous ‘60s amid Malcolm X’s growing rift with Elijah Muhammad (the late Ron Cephas Jones of “This is Us”) and King’s arrest and imprisonment in Georgia, the FBI’s surveillance of him, and his interactions with Lyndon Johnson (John C. McGinley) after the assassination of President Kennedy.

The eight episodes could easily be condensed into two films, which is both one of this format’s strengths – allowing the situations, and characters, room to breathe – and its weaknesses, lingering too long on certain interludes.

The performances do justice to the principals, with Pierre – a British actor recently featured in the independent film “Foe” as well as “The Underground Railroad” – particularly good in capturing Malcolm’s quiet intensity and the change that overcame him thanks to his prison conversion to Islam.

Presided over by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Television, working here with the producing team of Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood (“The Woman King”), “Genius” remains a somewhat flimsy umbrella under which to take what amount to deep biographical dives into significant historical figures, with the dual approach here creating the opportunity to slightly widen that lens.

More than anything, “MLK/X” exhibits a clear desire to humanize its subjects, conveying the men, women and personal sacrifices behind the myths and legends. While it generally succeeds on that level, the denseness of that history comes at the expense of slowing its march.

“Genius: MLK/X” premieres February 1 at 9 p.m. ET on National Geographic, with the first episode to be simulcast on ABC. Episodes will play the next day on Disney+ and Hulu.

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