Dr. Jessica Johnson: Series offers insight on icons of civil rights

For the past two years, students in my Black history sports icons course have watched Regina King’s Academy-nominated film “One Night in Miami” to begin our section on Muhammad Ali, formerly Cassius Clay.

Since “One Night in Miami” has a detailed focus on Malcolm X, I suggested to students who had some extra time between their class assignments this semester to also check out the new “Genius: MLK/X” series produced by National Geographic, which began streaming on Disney+ and Hulu during the beginning of February.

“Genius: MLK/X” is an eight-episode anthology that delves into the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X when they were children and then young men as emerging leaders of two vastly different racial factions during the civil rights era. For many of my students, Regina King’s creative and intensely detailed adaptation of the evening interactions between Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke after Clay’s upset heavyweight victory over Sonny Liston in 1964 is their first extensive introduction to Malcolm X as a social justice activist and embattled minister on the cusp of leaving the Nation of Islam.

My students usually have more comprehensive knowledge of Dr. King from what they learned about the civil rights movement in middle and high school. I have shared with them that this was also the case for me when I started college back in the late 1980s. I began learning more about Malcolm X in a course titled “The Black Experience” that I took at my HBCU alma mater North Carolina Central University. “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” was required reading.

“Genius: MLK/X” has not received the rave reviews that Regina King amassed in 2020 for “One Night in Miami,” and I think this is mainly due to the acting not being as dramatic. King cast Clay, Malcolm X, Brown and Cooke as profoundly passionate, aggressive and confident Black men in the midst of a rapidly changing America where they demanded to be respected and heard.

Malcolm X, portrayed by Kingsley Ben-Adir in King’s film, is depicted as troubled and “pissed off” throughout the plot, as he mostly chides Cooke for not writing progressive lyrics in his music to bring more attention to the cause of Black struggle.

Aaron Pierre’s Malcolm X in “Genius” is more cautious and pensive, while Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s Dr. King appears somewhat reclusive. Although critics considered these character renderings as major shortcomings for “Genius,” the series’ storylines are solid enough to build interest for those who wish to learn more about these two iconic men.

The latter episodes touch on how Dr. King and Malcolm X deeply battle with the stress and fear of knowing their lives and the lives of their wives and children were threatened. King was being wiretapped under the surveillance of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and Malcolm X was being closely watched after denouncing the Nation of Islam and starting the Organization of Afro-American Unity.

Before King and Malcolm X meet in their only encounter in D.C. during 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act into law, the “Genius” episode “Watch the Throne” includes a scene with King praying intently after being jailed for participating in an Atlanta sit-in with Morehouse College students. This reimagination of King looking dejected and drained behind bars is actually quite powerful. He prays earnestly to God, asking for the Lord’s guidance and confessing that he is afraid of losing “(his) allies, the movement and (his) life.” When thinking about how King is always lauded for his brilliant oratory and strategic leadership, it’s secluded moments like these that no doubt strengthened him to keep going.

As I watched the concluding episodes of “Genius: MLK/X,” I was reminded of one primary difference that I believe separated Malcolm X and King in their approaches in fighting for racial justice and equality. Malcolm X had more of a Black nationalist vision in seeking unity with African nations along with economic uplift.

King also fought for economic rights as one of his later protests involved his march in 1968 with Memphis sanitation workers over fair wages. However, King viewed racism and discrimination as issues of sin and not just social ills. He fervently believed that we cannot save ourselves because “humanity is not God,” and we are “bound by the chains of (our) own sin and finiteness.” This is the spiritual bondage of prejudice that King was hoping our nation would victoriously overcome.

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @JjSmojc. Her opinion does not necessarily represent the views of The Lima News or its owner, AIM Media.