Jessi Dean, a highly accomplished professional in film and TV hair design, served as the hair department head for the Nat Geo series Genius: MLK/X. Her extensive experience and expertise were important in authentically portraying the iconic figures of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Dean's role involved meticulous attention to detail and historical accuracy, ensuring that the hairstyles reflected the era's sociological and political context, but she also cared deeply about accurately reflecting period Black hairstyles while also protecting the hair of the cast.

We emailed with Dean about her process. Enjoy!

Genius: MLK/X | Official Trailer | National

No Film School: What was your research process for Genius: MLK/X?

Jessi Dean: I spent two months on this research. I was searching for an understanding of how their personal experiences, relationships, and environments may have influenced their choices of hairstyles.

I used reference materials such as historical photographs, paintings, films, and literature to gain more insight into each character’s personality and lifestyle. I also considered the hair and fashion trends of each era we were capturing.

I wanted regular people of the day—outside of the movement. I had hoped to find pictures of how men and women set their hair and the products they used from my own family’s pictures. How they protected their hair vs. how we do now. For example, they used brown paper bags to protect the ends of the hair to avoid going frizzy.

But those pictures didn’t exist with my family.

So I asked my girlfriends, my second moms, and aunts for pictures. I also asked my older clients from our salon for pictures of themselves when they were younger.

I also went to DuSable Museum here in Chicago and looked at pages and pages of reference materials showing pictures of men and women from the 1960s.

Jessi Dean behind the scenes of Genius: MLK/X\u200b\u200bJessi Dean behind the scenes of Genius: MLK/XJessi Dean/Provided

NFS: What were your favorite hair designs to work on?

Dean: It’s hard to choose a favorite! However, one of the more interesting wigs that was designed was Malcolm's because it outwardly chronicled the evolution of his personal growth while progressing towards his commitment of embracing his natural hair identity, which was an honor and a privilege for me to recreate.

My goal was to highlight texture, so I chose to use a kinky, reddish-brown blend of coiled hair throughout.

NFS: How do you consider protecting hair during your styling, especially natural or Black hair?

Dean: Prioritizing the health and safety of the actors’ hair is of the utmost importance. I consider the texture and preference of my actors' comfort.

I offer no-heat options and braiding to protect and secure their hair while creating a stable foundation for our daily wig application. Overall, taking these protective measures allows the actor to focus on their work and not their hair.

NFS: Why was it important to you to show natural Black hair and textures in various environments on the show?

Dean: Our history is so vital to understanding how we have arrived where we are today. Black hair has a multitude of nuances and personalities, and I wanted to showcase what was underneath the assimilation of that era. Educating viewers who may not be familiar with natural Black hair and its various characteristics can potentially help normalize the impact and presence of natural Black hair. It was important for me to deliver the period styles with a fresh take on this historical moment.

NFS: Can you tell me about a technical or on-set challenge you had working on Genius: MLK/X, and how you overcame it?

Dean: Attempting to schedule wig consults with most of our actors was a challenge, as they were located across different parts of the world and had very busy schedules with limited windows of availability.

Thankfully, my wig builders, Gretchen Evans and Tommy Kurzman, really buckled down and finished the wigs quickly, and they were beautiful.

We were able to meet our deadline because they worked tirelessly, and I can’t thank them enough!

Behind the scenes of Genius: MLK/X\u200b\u200bBehind the scenes of Genius: MLK/XJessi Dean/Provided

NFS: What advice would you have for someone wanting to get into hair for TV/film?

Dean: You need to know how to do your best work in the least amount of time.

I remember when I joined my first project. I was so excited to do hair, and I thought I would have the time to complete a full-service haircut! Ahhh, no!

You don’t have the luxury of time or a salon. You have a tiny corner of a trailer, and you must get the hair shape perfectly while shoved in a tight spot.

This is not as glamorous as many people think it is!

You don’t have two hours to achieve a great look like you do in salons. It’s a whole other formula. You have to think differently. It changes the creative process.

And once you’re done—you have to watch it ALL DAY LONG to make sure it’s perfect and stays the same throughout the entire shoot.

It takes the creative process to a technical process.

NFS: Is there anything you'd like to add?

Dean: I’m so thankful to God! I absolutely love what I do, and I consider it a blessing to be able to tell stories with my hands and hair strands.

It was a dream come true to reimagine these characters, and to present several variations of hair textures, color, and shapes.