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Playing Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X 'terrified' the stars of 'Genius: MLK/X'

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Playing Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X 'terrified' the stars of 'Genius: MLK/X'

Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Aaron Pierre had the same reaction after learning that they had been hired to play the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, respectively, in National Geographic‘s “Genius: MLK/X.”

Terror.

Not only did they both initially feel overwhelmed by the daunting responsibility of portraying the iconic civil rights leaders but they also felt their performances would likely be compared to those of others. Denzel Washington portrayed Malcolm X in the eponymous 1992 film that earned him an Oscar nomination, Samuel L. Jackson starred as King in Katori Hall’s Broadway production of “The Mountaintop” and James Earl Jones also portrayed King in the miniseries “Freedom to Speak.”

But with the support of friends and producers, Harrison and Pierre eventually overcame their doubts, delivering distinctive and bold portraits of the two men.

“MLK/X” is the fourth season of “Genius,” a biographical anthology series that has focused on Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso and Aretha Franklin in previous installments. The final two episodes of the eight-part season, which premiered Feb. 1, run Thursday on National Geographic and stream the following day on Hulu and Disney+.

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Co-starring as King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, is Weruche Opia (HBO’s “I May Destroy You”), and Jayme Lawson (“Till”) plays Betty Shabazz, the wife of Malcolm X. The executive producing team includes Gina Prince-Bythewood, Reggie Rock Bythewood, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard.

Harrison (“Chevalier”) and Pierre (“Foe”) knew each other — they are both involved in the upcoming “The Lion King” prequel, “The Lion King: Mufasa.” Pierre plays the title character, while Harrison plays the villain Scar.

Even though they share only a few scenes in “Genius,” they clearly became bonded during the project and expressed a palpable fondness for each other during a recent joint interview at a Pasadena hotel. Pierre occasionally patted Harrison’s knee during the discussion, calling him “my best friend.” This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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A profile headshot of Kelvin Harrison Jr. with his hand near his chin.

1. Aaron Pierre plays Malcolm X. 2. Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

It must have been good news to be cast in this series, but I’m sure it was also scary.

Harrison: Initially, I was terrified. I didn’t know whether it was appropriate for me to be cast. I was 27, 28 years old, had just started acting and hadn’t lived that much life. I feel I have gotten the benefit of Dr. King’s and Malcolm’s work, but what was it that I could do to bring a further understanding of it? Then I thought, “I just have to get over myself.” The producers told me Dr. King was young when he began his journey. There was a lot of responsibility bestowed on him. Plus, he had a wife and kid. I felt a little naive, but that also fits in with the story we’re telling. It’s about taking on that naivety and not mistaking it for ignorance or a lack of intelligence. It’s also about not losing that sense of hope that we have in our country and our identities in who we are, putting one foot in front of the other and walking in faith. Then I got excited thinking, “I can’t believe I get to go on this journey.”

Pierre: I share that sentiment. I’m the same age as Kelvin. When I got the call, I questioned whether I had the capacity, the endurance, the durability, the emotional intelligence, the life experience. I didn’t say yes immediately because I needed to sit with that and understand what that feeling was and how I was going to channel those feelings into something that would propel me forward as opposed to prohibiting me. Once I thought I could do that, largely because of the support network about me personally and creatively, I knew I could begin embarking on the journey. You find joy in it, which is so important because what these men did needs to be celebrated and championed.

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1 A man in a suit, tie and glasses standing before a microphone.

2 A man in a suite at a church pulpit.

1. Aaron Pierre as Malcolm X in “Genius: MLK/X.” (Richard DuCree / National Geographic) 2. Kelvin Harrison Jr. as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Richard DuCree / National Geographic)

What was the research process like?

Pierre: We both watched and absorbed a tremendous amount of historical footage. I went to “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which is something I think I will revisit more than once in my lifetime. Then there’s “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X,” which I trusted implicitly with its historical knowledge and insight. I visited Harlem, which fueled me in a very beautiful way.

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Harrison: My initial instinct was to watch every movie about Dr. King, but my young actor brain and every actor I respected said, “Stay away from doing that.” So I refused that impulse. Then I had to figure out what those actors did. What I found out is that they brought a little bit of themselves to the role. I had to do an investigation of myself to figure out how to bring my humanity.

A man sits on a stool draped with white cloth and a man leans on his shoulder.

To prepare for their roles, Aaron Pierre, left, with Kelvin Harrison Jr., says they “both watched and absorbed a tremendous amount of historical footage.”

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Aaron, were you intimidated by Denzel Washington’s acclaimed performance as Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s film?

Pierre: Denzel is a hero of mine. I have the utmost respect for him, not only artistically but personally. I had to manage that a hero of mine had played a hero of mine. I dealt with that by accepting that truth and then setting it free. Once I did that, I was able to permit myself to be liberated and safe enough to explore my own portrayal and bring my own life experience to Malcolm.

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Kelvin, you had a similar situation. The actors who have played King include Jeffrey Wright and James Earl Jones.

Harrison: It’s kind of none of my business at a certain point. Dr. King was called to do something. If the people behind this project are calling me to do this, they see something in me I can’t see. And it’s arrogant for me to sit there and debate about it.

Pierre: At a certain point, we made peace with that fact, realizing all we can do is do our best. We use everything in our power to serve these tremendous men and their stories and legacies. Beyond that point, we have to set it free and let it be. It’s the only way to protect your well-being.

King and Malcolm X’s stories are told on parallel tracks. You share only a few scenes, but it’s clear you felt connected to each other.

Pierre: Absolutely. Aside from the professional work we share, this is one of my dearest friends. There’s a true sense of support and seeing one another through each others experience. We have so many parallels and similarities of our respective lives. We didn’t see each other a lot on set, but when we did, we checked in with each other. We understood that what we were embarking on was not easy. It required vulnerability.

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Harrison: One of the times we did connect was when he came over to my little apartment in L.A. He brought doughnuts and I cooked. We talked about everything — how our journeys were going so far. Then we watched “Devil in a Blue Dress” with Denzel and Don Cheadle. We filled our cups with these beautiful portrayals. It was inspiration. It’s so easy to want to retreat when you’re on a journey like this. You get overwhelmed. You want to say, “This is too hard, I’m backing out.” So it’s important to have those moments to reconnect and say, “We’re in this together.”

Two men sit next to each other.

The actors say they tried to support each other in their roles. “We talked about everything — how our journeys were going so far,” says Kelvin Harrison Jr.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

What was the most challenging day for you both?

Pierre: If we’re being honest, every day was challenging. This isn’t an engagement that ended with the final scene of the day. This demanded that we be engaged every day for the five or six months we did this. Every day we felt the weight of wearing those jackets.

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Were you ever able to relax? What did you do to relieve stress?

Pierre: I’m really very grateful to Kelvin and Weruche. I have a tendency, no matter what the project is, but particularly with a project of this magnitude, to completely immerse myself for the duration. But they really looked after me. I would just be sitting in my trailer, in the suit with the glasses on, waiting for the next scene. Then one or both of them would drop by and say, “I brought you some shrimp.” They would bring joy. They contributed to the health of my personal well-being.

Harrison: I read somewhere that Martin’s favorite show was “Star Trek,” and he would watch that to decompress. So I thought, “I’ve got to find my own show.” So I got addicted to “Big Brother.” That was my “Star Trek.” I know that show is ridiculous, but I refuse to give it that label because it’s so good. It was like, “They’re stuck in this house. On the set, I’m stuck in this universe.” I related to them, and it would make me laugh and have fun.

What do you think audiences will learn from “Genius”?

Pierre: I hope it will dispel the myths and reveal the truth about the experiences of these men. There is a considerable amount of misinformation about Malcolm X. They need to gain the understanding that he operated from a place of love and light. Some might say he was advocating for physical engagement. I disagree. I think he was advocating for safeguarding and preserving the safety and livelihoods of your loved ones, your community and for those who look like you.

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Harrison: Our job as storytellers is to inspire. With this story, I see it as a mirror to our country and the cyclical nature of it.

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Movie Reviews

‘Abigail’ is a Delightfully Gory Addition to Vampire Movies – Review

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‘Abigail’ is a Delightfully Gory Addition to Vampire Movies – Review

Becky checked out Abigail to see how it stacks up to other vampire movies.

I need to start off with a bit of blunt honesty: I initially thought it was a mistake for the trailers to give away that Abigail is a vampire. It would’ve been an immensely satisfying twist had the audience gone in completely blind to the truth of what Abigail really is.

That being said, having seen the film, I can now admit that it wasn’t a mistake at all. In fact everything given away in the trailer only serves to whet the appetite, so to speak, for what’s to come in the rest of the film.

Abigail, an extremely loose re-interpretation of Dracula’s Daughter (1936), follows a group of kidnappers as they snatch a wealthy mogul’s daughter, the titular Abigail, to hold her for ransom. It seems like a simple job: hold the girl until her father coughs up the ransom, everyone gets paid, everyone is happy. There’s just one little detail the kidnappers don’t know: Abigail is actually a vampire, and she’s very hungry.

The story does take a bit of time to properly get going, with a major chunk of time passing before anything remotely supernatural happens. However, once the creepy vampire activities start happening, the story kicks into a whole new gear. The basic set up is frightening, as these criminals find themselves locked in a house with a vampire and no exits. The thing is, the story also comes across as funny at times, in a weird and twisted sort of way.

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For instance, there’s a scene revealed in one of the trailers where the group debates how they’re going to take the vampire down and they list off the different kinds of vampires known in fiction (citing Anne Rice, True Blood, and Twilight among other things). It makes sense that this is how most people would have any information about vampires, yet the way it’s presented you can’t help but laugh a little when it comes up.

The cast is one detail that makes Abigail a very good film. Alisha Weir almost completely steals the show with her performance as Abigail and proves she has a bright future in movies. Kathryn Newton also rocks as Sammy the hacker. This is the second horror film I’ve seen her in this year and she is rapidly becoming one of my favorite actresses. However, all praise needs to be given to Melissa Barrera’s performance as Joey. She absolutely killed it throughout the film and it’s mesmerizing to watch her interactions with Abigail shift throughout the story.

One thing that needs to be noted is that Abigail is a very gory film. It’s not constant, but when it does happen, it’s a lot. The filmmakers definitely played these moments up for maximum effect and it works.

Something that worked unexpectedly well is the theme of ballet that is woven throughout the film. That is one detail I wasn’t sure would work, but if anything it serves to make Abigail even more terrifying. To be followed throughout the mansion by a vampiric ballerina is quite unsettling and definitely makes Abigail one of the more memorable additions to the lore of vampiric cinema.

In conclusion, Abigail is equal parts scary, gory, and believe it or not, fun. It likely won’t win any awards, but I truly feel that most people who go in to see it will leave feeling satisfied. Abigail is the very definition of a good ‘popcorn movie’ and one I wouldn’t mind seeing again.

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David Mamet slams Hollywood's 'garbage' DEI initiatives. 'It’s fascist totalitarianism'

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David Mamet slams Hollywood's 'garbage' DEI initiatives. 'It’s fascist totalitarianism'

David Mamet is not done lambasting the liberal establishment in Hollywood.

“DEI is garbage,” said the Pulitzer Prize-winning author to a packed house at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. It’s fascist totalitarianism.”

The playwright and director did not shy away from his trademark expletives or controversy as he spoke about his tell-all memoir, “Everywhere an Oink Oink,” with Times deputy entertainment editor Matt Brennan at USC’s Newman Recital Hall.

His book, published in the fall, details his last 40 years in the moviemaking business and falling out of grace as his politics shifted him from a progressive “red diaper baby” of two communist Jewish parents raised on the South Side of Chicago to a present-day Trump-loving conservative.

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For more than a decade, Mamet’s political and social statements have made as many headlines as his film and theater work. His latest gripe is with the new diversity rules that the Academy of Motion Pictures instituted for Oscar-eligible films to help advance the representation of LGBTQ+, women, ethnic minorities and disabled people.

The idea that “I can’t give you a stupid f— statue unless you have 7% of this, 8% of that … it’s intrusive,” Mamet said.

Although Mamet acknowledged that discrimination barred groups from participating in Hollywood for years, he thinks the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. In his book, Mamet describes the leaders of these diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives as “diversity capos and “diversity commissars.”

“The [film industry] has little business improving everybody’s racial understanding as does the fire department,” Mamet said to a few loud laughs in the crowd. He argued that his colleagues are better off selling popcorn than trying to improve representation for women, queer talent and other marginalized groups.

Mamet did not mince his words. He used the outdated term “transsexuals” when talking about transgender people and railed against gender-neutral bathrooms. “It politicizes the human excretory function,” he said to even louder guffaws in the crowd.

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He proudly claimed his defense of free speech in an amicus brief he wrote to the Supreme Court this year in NetChoice LLC vs. Paxton. “We see great attacks on freedom of speech in this country,” Mamet said.

Film executives and writers were not safe from Mamet’s critiques either. He blamed film studios for the “hegemony” that’s smothered the voices of independent filmmakers. “There’s no room for individual initiative,” Mamet said. He added that the film industry is experiencing the “growth, maturity, decay and death” that “happens to everything that’s organic.”

Back in 2007, Mamet was a vocal opponent of the writers’ strike and complained last year when writers reached an impasse with studios as they bargained for pay raises and protections against the use of artificial intelligence.

“There’ll be less work,” Mamet conceded. “But the scripts will be better.”

Does Mamet think of his children as nepo babies who’ve benefited from his illustrious career? Not at all, he said. He feels gratified that they’ve learned from being on set with him.

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“They earned it by merit,” he said of daughter Zosia Mamet, who starred in “Girls.” They haven’t benefited from any type of privilege, he said, and he thinks that DEI initiatives are taking away hard-earned opportunities. “Nobody ever gave my kids a job because of who they were related to.”

Mamet said he’s been pushed out of Hollywood less by his politics than by his age. Young directors want to work with friends of their own generation.

“Nobody’s going to pay me a lot of money anymore,” Mamet said. “Nobody’s going to let me have a lot of fun.”

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Short Film Review: Wooden Toilet (2023) by Zuni Rinpoche

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Short Film Review: Wooden Toilet (2023) by Zuni Rinpoche

“You separated from us”

Winner of Best LGBTQ Short Film’ at the International Kolkata Short Film Festival this year, “Wooden Toilet” had an extensive festival run before premiering in its country of production, Bhutan.

The 11-minutes short begins with a rather impressive sequence, of a procession of people dressed in white through the mountains, with an exception of one woman who is eventually revealed to be the one whose husband’s funeral the group of people were attending. The sudden laughter of a man breaks the ritualistic approach, and we find out that there is something unusual about this man, who is later on trying to explain it to the aforementioned woman. The back story of another man, where he is trying to reveal something to his father but is instead met with anger and scorn, highlights, to a point at least, what the issue with the two men is. One of the final scenes makes it rather clear, while the last scene connects the short with its title.

The first thing one would notice about “Wooden Toilet” is its impressive visuals. Starting with the initial procession, the close ups that emit a sense of horror, the hanging ropes and the red bedroom are all truly memorable, with Zuni Rinpoche implementing symbolism in order to make his comments. The symbolisms, however, are somewhat difficult to understand what they are about, although the comment about the racism and lack of understanding queer people have to face is made quite clear.

The non-linear approach, which also includes much surrealism, apart from the aforementioned symbolism, adds much to the narrative, particularly through the implementation of the aforementioned scenes. One could say, that on a number of levels, the film could be described as experimental, although there is also a basis in terms of story, that does not allow it to go fully towards that direction.

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All in all, “Wooden Toilet” is an intriguing short by Zuni Rinpoche, who would definitely benefit from a longer duration, that would allow the director to unfold his story and his symbolisms in more eloquent fashion. Still, the film deserves a watch for its visuals and the overall approach to the queer concept.

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