Jayme Lawson: 'Genius' shows wives as equal partners of MLK, Malcolm X

Aaron Pierre and Jayme Lawson star in "Genius: MLK/X," which wraps up its season Thursday. Photo courtesy of Nat Geo
1 of 5 | Aaron Pierre and Jayme Lawson star in "Genius: MLK/X," which wraps up its season Thursday. Photo courtesy of Nat Geo

NEW YORK, Feb. 22 (UPI) -- Jayme Lawson says it was immediately clear when she read the scripts that Genius: MLK/X also would spotlight the contributions of Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King, not only those of their assassinated civil-rights activist husbands Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

"That was very much a selling point," Lawson, who played Shabazz, told UPI in a recent Zoom interview.


"From the get-go, the show-runners and the producers were very adamant about taking these women from being behind to making them beside and showing them as equal partners with these men. Any time you tell me that, I am down."

Wrapping Thursday on the National Geographic channel, with the finale set to stream Friday on Disney+ and Hulu, the fourth installment in the Genius anthology series explores the formative years of King and X, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Aaron Pierre.


The men met only once, by chance in 1964, and were publicly murdered three years apart, both at age 39.

Their wives carried on their battles for equality decades after their deaths.

Lawson said she was humbled by the faith that executive producer Gina Prince-Bythewood had in casting her as Shabazz.

"I remember one of the early conversations I had with Gina when she was like, 'I know you will put in the work to really tell her story and introduce her to an audience that may know absolutely nothing about her,'" Lawson said.

"I'm grateful that I get to continue to portray and explore such great powerful women and really delve into the complexities of them, to not allow them to be reserved to just this one dimension," she said. "These women are reflective of the women that I grew up with."

This was the first time Weruche Opia had ever played a real person.

"Of course, I pick one of the most iconic women in modern history," Opia said about portraying Coretta Scott King.

"It was a first and a huge deal for me," she said. "It was an honor and a privilege to be entrusted to give my idea and my interpretation of her, while still honoring her legacy, and respecting it so much, but still giving it the onus it needs."


The British actress said she was unfamiliar with Coretta Scott King before she signed on to play her, so she dove into her autobiography, My Life, My Love, My Legacy, to supplement the scripts.

"For me, this was an education, as well," Opia said. "I didn't know that much about Coretta before, which is criminal."

Coretta's Scott King's Christian faith was a touchstone for Opia as she looked for ways into the woman's head and heart.

"She speaks about how, as a young girl, she used to daydream a lot and wonder what her future would be like, almost to the effect of, 'How do you be great?'" Opia said.

"That's something that stayed with her throughout her life and she always went back to it and with her faith as her grounding, she always checked in on herself on where she was and especially when she had to make decisions," she said. "That fed her and was her charging force. It served her throughout her life."

Lawson said that, as a consultant on the series, Atallah Shabazz, the eldest child of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, was a tremendous source of information and perspective.

"She was brought on really early, even before the writers' room even started to really help them guide this story," Lawson said.


The actresses believe Shabazz and Coretta Scott King's legacies are the same as the men's because they fought just as hard to improve the lives of Black Americans.

"The only difference is they carried on the work themselves after the men were taken from them," Opia said.

"The race continues. We're still benefiting now, not only from what Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. achieved, but from what Betty and Coretta have inspired and put in place. I don't think you can quite separate their legacies. They complement each other. They expand on each other."

Malcom X was shot to death in 1965 and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

Betty Shabazz died from injuries sustained in an apartment fire in 1997 at age 61.

Coretta Scott King died in 2006 at age 78 after a stroke and a battle with ovarian cancer.

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