Genius: MLK/X Review: Bland Biography Relies Too Much on Its Good Performances

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Each season of National Geographic’s anthology series Genius focuses on a different historical figure, but this latest season, the show’s creators give audiences two for one. With such great actors playing the roles of two of the most iconic people in American history, Genius: MLK/X should be an immediate home run. Unfortunately, the show’s bland and disorganized approach to stories that many viewers already know prevents the series from standing out among the crowd of films on the same topic.

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Genius: MLK/X tells the stories of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X as they rise up to become two of the most influential leaders in the American Civil Rights movement. This duo is likely the show’s most ambitious swing yet, as past seasons have focused on Einstein, Picasso, and Aretha Franklin — all important people in their own right, but not quite to the world-changing level of King or Malcolm X.

One would think that with eight episodes clocking in at around 50 minutes each (to leave enough time in the hour-long slot for commercials, of course), Genius: MLK/X would have the opportunity to explore the lives of these icons in much more depth than any cinematic treatment of their stories has in the past. Unfortunately, that couldn’t be further from the case.

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Martin Luther King Jr., played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Coretta Scott King, played by Weruche Opia, in GENIUS: MLK/X. (National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

Genius: MLK/X struggles to balance its dual storyline

Although there is a focus on the personal lives of these men, the show obviously doesn’t dig too deeply into the nitty gritty to risk distracting from their work’s impact. In trying to avoid some of the stories that had already been told — such as the Selma March — the show ends up feeling laughably cursory in depicting these turning moments in the Civil Rights movement.

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The redeeming factor of this series is the strong performances of the two leads. Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Aaron Pierre do a fantastic job as King and Malcolm, respectively. They are the type of biopic performances that feel more like an impersonation than an embodiment. Still, considering how well these two individuals are known, it’s understandable why the performers would play it safe (but quality) with their turns.

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Malcolm X, played by Aaron Pierre, and Betty X, played by Jayme Lawson, in GENIUS: MLK/X. (National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

Safe but quality is also the modus operandi of Genius from a technical standpoint. Everything about the visuals, from the production design to the costuming and make-up work, is solid. It feels like we are watching a historically accurate recreation of this era in virtually every way, precisely what one would expect from programming created by National Geographic.

That being said, one of the more frustrating things about the show’s style is its sporadic use of anachronisms. Every episode contains a few needle drops of modern music, like hip-hop anthems. They aren’t used prevalently enough for them to be effective but are just present enough to be distracting. It’s a weird disconnect from the otherwise bland storytelling.

In trying to tell the occasionally interwoven stories of two of the greatest activists of all time, Genius: MLK/X not only fails to create a compelling parallel between the two but also to pay respect to both of their legacies. Strong performances aside, there’s little reason to watch this biography that has been done bmmetter plenty of times before.

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Genius: MLK/X premieres on National Geographic on February 1 at 9/8c, with two new episodes airing each week. All eight episodes reviewed.

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Rating: 5/10

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Written by Sean Boelman

Articles Published: 174

Sean is a film critic, filmmaker, and life-long cinephile. For as long as he can remember, he has always loved film, but he credits the film Pan's Labyrinth as having started his love of film as art. Sean enjoys watching many types of films, although some personal favorite genres include music documentaries, heist movies, and experimental horror.