Stars Weruche Opia And Jayme Lawson Talk About How ‘Genius’ Explores Details Of MLK And Malcolm X’s Lives

Historically, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Jr are treated as opposing forces in the fight for social justice and liberation – with one being a Baptist pastor who famously advocated for non-violence and the other being one of the most vocal supporters of the Nation of Islam who popularized the phrase “by any means necessary” as a rallying cry for the oppressed. But how does that idea stand up in the new season of Nat Geo’s Genius, which is focused on MLK and Malcolm X?

“It is the impetus for the entire series, in that we are challenging the narrative that these two men were rivals and we’re challenging the narrative that you had to pick between being either Team Martin or Team Malcolm,” executive producer and co-showrunner Damione Macedon tells UPROXX of Genius: MLK/X series. “We’ve pitted these two men against each other and pitted their ideologies against one another, and what we examined in the research and what we’ve come to really understand with hindsight is we need both of them. We need both of those perspectives to not only move all of us in the right direction but also overcome the hurdles that they so accurately articulated.”

To examine the story, the series expands beyond Martin and Malcolm into their lives, focussing on the story of Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz, as well. “Part of what we hope to accomplish is putting a spotlight on who they were as human beings and allowing our audience to find something within what they see within each one of our four leads, and hopefully, become inspired and engaged and then become active out there in our society,” executive producer and co-showrunner, Raphael Jackson Jr. says.

To get their take on the project and the experience of playing these iconic women and figures in American history, Uproxx spoke with Weruche Opia and Jayme Lawson, who played Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz, touching on the impact of the experience of it all.

To start us off, I’m curious as to what kind of preparation either of you did to get into your roles.

Weruche Opia: A lot of prayer, but a lot of research, a lot of reading, a lot of searching inside and asking myself questions, ‘Yeah, am I up to this?’ I will say that one of the books that I really read was one of [Coretta’s] autobiographies called My Love, My Life, My Legacy. And I feel like that gave me an insight into who Coretta was. Lucky for me, and very much of a privilege, is that there are some similarities between myself and her. She’s a woman of faith, so am I. In the book, it states that she makes a lot of her decisions through prayer, and I was like, ‘Ooh, that’s what I do.’

So just finding the similarities between us, I think, propelled me and encouraged me to be like, ‘Okay, this is something I can do.’ But I also had to remind myself and give myself the grace that I am not the Coretta Scott King, and all I can do is lend myself to her legacy and show the world my understanding of who she was. Again, treated with the most respect, the most reverence taken, the huge responsibility. But I think all I can do is my best, and I’m hopeful that my best was good.

Jayme Lawson: It all starts with the research. It starts with, for me, finding credible sources on Dr. Betty Shabazz. Just growing up with an awareness that there was a lot of misinformation out there on Malcolm X. And so then, how much more difficult is it to then find the right tellings on Dr. Betty Shabazz? So sourcing out those papers or the books, listening to her interviews, and all of her speaking publicly, was after Malcolm was taken from her.

So starting there and figuring out, ‘Well, how do I backtrack and craft the woman before Malcolm, and track her throughout?’ I would listen to different recordings at different points of her life to also craft her voice. What does her voice sound like pre-Malcolm? After she’s given birth to six children? And then, after he’s taken, what does grief do to the body and the voice? So it was all-encompassing research. Even getting to set and talking with the costume designers about, ‘Okay, let’s add padding in the evolution of her, right?’ Because this is a woman who gave birth to six children, so I need to look like I’ve got some hips. You know what I mean? If we’re going to go for the truth, let’s go for the truth. It was subtle, it’s not noticeable, but it was something to just help me sit in her differently, at different points of her life.

Was there a particular moment where you felt that you really locked in and had what you needed, to really get this role accomplished and really get into it?

Opia: I honestly felt like that the first day on set, I would say. I remember the first day clearly, and I think we were the first camera up, I think, me and Kelvin [Harrison]. And we were both terrified.

But once it’s all together, and I look at myself in the mirror, and I don’t see myself, it is like, ‘Okay, it’s go time.’ And I would say the very first scene, which is actually the very first scene that we have in the show. It was the first scene that we shot. And so, even watching it back, I’m like, my accent hadn’t settled yet, but I remember being in the costume, being in the head, being at that hotel that felt like it was back then. That was a moment. It was like, ‘Yo, this is happening for real. Let’s get it, Coretta.’

Lawson: I’d say similar, honestly, when we all come together, that’s the beautiful thing about what we do. It’s really a collaboration of all artists.

Putting on the hair and the makeup and the costuming, and all the work that I did with the dialect coach, everything. Even what the grips are doing, and the lighting, and everything comes together, and you start to see the world that’s been built from the designers, and you step into it, and it’s like, ‘Okay, now I can begin to start taking some ownership.’ Because I’m not just on an island by myself kind of crafting it. Now, I can take on everybody’s involvement and investment in these figures.

Opia: It’s a beautiful song. I was just sitting here, as you were speaking about this, I just saw this imagery of different instruments coming in at different points, and it all comes together, and it’s one beautiful sound, a beautiful song. And that is honestly how I feel this project has turned out. It’s a beautiful song.

When we see a story about Malcolm or Martin, it primarily focuses on one of them. And then, if anything, we get a cameo for the other one or something along those lines. What do you think is the benefit of telling their stories simultaneously, like in this series?

Lawson: It’s huge, honestly. Because I think what the show will do, what it did for us reading it, is dispel the narrative that they were against each other.

Opia: Diametrically opposed.

Lawson: Yeah. And that, for some reason, we have to feel as though we have to choose one or the other, right? We’re cutting that out. It’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and, right? We don’t have the movement at the height of what it was and is, we don’t get to where we are, any of us if we had one and not the other. And so the benefit of this show is showing them side-by-side, and how they were both fighting for the same exact things. They just had different means, and they reached different audiences. Malcolm couldn’t reach Martin’s audience, and Martin couldn’t reach Malcolm’s. In doing so, it brought the entire community together.

There was a fight, a communal fight, for dignity and respectability, and a restoration of self and community. They weren’t against each other. And that’s what I am hopeful that a lot of people will see. And also, that they were young men. These were young men who started these movements in their twenties. They didn’t have it figured out, they didn’t fully know themselves.

While the series definitely does focus primarily on Malcolm and Martin, it also gives us a very intimate look into their inner circles, including the characters that you both played, Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz. What was it like to be able to depict those more private, intimate moments in this case, that we don’t typically get to see?

Opia: It was beautiful, and it was lovely to enjoy. Like Jayme said, seeing these men as young men, and as young men who achieved great things, and they weren’t waiting for a perfect moment. I loved the fact that we got to explore them, because a lot of the times, what we see of them in portrayals of them is mostly just the big moments. But I think in showing the little moments; having dinner, dancing with your wife, eating ice cream, it shows and highlights the humanity of these larger-than-life people. It shows their complexities. Even though they have managed to achieve all these great things, they also had issues that they dealt with, they might have had mental health struggles. They were struggling with fear. They definitely had imposter syndrome, you know what I mean?

And so, being a part of it, to show the humanity of them, to show the everyday parts of them, showing them as wives, as lovers, as friends, and showing the men as sons, as brothers, because they were human. It was just beautiful to have been able to portray that and show that. And hopefully, that will affect people. Like Jayme said, to realize that you don’t have to wait. There’s this thing about waiting for a hero to come and rescue us, but we are actually heroes ourselves. It just takes a matter of commitment, unwavering decision, and unwavering desire to do something great, or fight for a great cause, and great things happen.

How would each of you define success for this project? Is it something that you’re particularly looking for, as far as impact? Or is there something that can even be measured, in that sense?

Opia: Look, just as we said, people looking within themselves and realizing they don’t have to wait for a hero. If you have a burning desire, if you have a burning purpose, no, you can’t wait to have it all figured out.

Lawson: Because then your time will pass.

Opia: Do you know what I’m saying? And these men, I don’t think they knew they were going to… They were just so convinced, and they were so busy minding their business and focusing on their business, and this is what happens when you mind your business.

Lawson: Mind your business, stand on business.

Opia: Stand on business. And it’s that conviction of knowing that something is a greater purpose, and you’re so convinced about it, and you’re willing to do whatever it takes. And I hope that people encompass that in their lives, and just give themselves the grace to chase whatever it is that they feel they’re here on this earth to do, and let everything else fall into place.

Lawson: Yeah, I think I’m actually getting to witness the success of this show already. Because for me, a big win is the fact that it’s reaching different generations, that I’m already getting calls from family members and friends, where the grandmother and the grandson are sitting on the couch watching the show together, and both are able to enjoy it.

Opia: I love that.

Lawson: And that is a big win for me, especially because, honestly, I was nervous about the older generation wanting to even watch this show, or have any acceptance of it. Because rightfully so, they have a different level of protection over Malcolm and Martin, and Betty and Coretta, because they grew up with them, and knew them in a different way than the rest of us do.

And so to know that they are actually looking forward to the new episodes each week, and wanting to watch, and feel like they’re actually learning some things that they didn’t know, that is a major win, and I’m very happy about that.

Opia: Unification.

All episodes of ‘Genius:MLK/X’ are available to stream on Hulu and Disney+ now.