When National Geographic launches the third season of its Genius television series tonight, following profiles of Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, the focus this time is on another kind of genius: An icon of music, the strong Black woman crowned the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
The first of eight episodes of Genius: Aretha, premiering Sunday, March 21 at 9 p.m. EDT/8 CDT, shows the star’s rise from girlhood to her first recording sessions, as well as her struggles with men, from her philandering father the preacher, to the petty, abusive and controlling man who was Franklin’s first husband and manager. The talented pianist, gospel singer and mother is portrayed as having few strong male role models for the two boys she’s been raising since she was 15.
Franklin would go on to have four sons, one of whom is on record as opposing this production. The Detroit Free Press reported last month Kecalf Franklin put Genius producers on blast on social media as not having the family’s support, as well as targeting MGM, which plans to release its own biographical film in August. Vanity Fair reported that before her death in August 2018, Franklin herself handpicked Jennifer Hudson to play her in Respect.
Imagine Television’s Brian Grazer, one of the executive producers of the NatGeo production, told The New York Times that they received the endorsement of Aretha Franklin’s estate through its trustee at the time, Sabrina Owens, the singer’s niece, before filming started.
Since the singer’s own history showed a repeated reluctance to have her story told, this presentation owes its authenticity to another Black woman, showrunner Suzan-Lori Parks. The playwright was the first African-American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. In 2015, she was awarded the prestigious Gish Prize for Excellence in the Arts and is, appropriately for this series, a MacArthur “Genius” Award recipient.
Parks told The Times her challenge was: “How do I tell the truth about this Black American woman who is a brilliant icon? And how do I tell the truth and be respectful?” She said she spent many months reading what Franklin said, and also took note of what she didn’t say, alluding to a lesson borrowed from another music tradition.
“Jazz musicians will remind us that the music isn’t just the notes,” Parks said in her interview with The Times. “It’s the stuff between the notes, the silences.”
Franklin’s skill in arranging her songs was often uncredited in her lifetime but is shown in painstaking detail in Genius: Aretha, as is her refusal to give up on her dream of recording.
British actress and singer Cynthia Erivo, best known for the film Harriet and a stage production of The Color Purple, stars as Franklin. Although Erivo provides the vocals for the iconic songs we hear, she told a reporter she avoided mimicking the singer’s signature stylings, which are ingrained in generations of pop culture memory, by focusing on the emotions Franklin would have felt in those times of blatant racism, sexism and oppression.
“Where are we right now? What is this coming out of or what are we going into? What is the feeling here?” are the questions Erivo told The Times she’d ask herself. A vocal coach helped her fine-tune Franklin’s virtuoso technique and skill, as well as the subtlety of her emotional inflections. “No one wants to watch someone singing analytically. No one wants to watch someone doing the notes. You learn them, you understand them, and then you let that go, so that there’s a freedom for it to just move through you.”
Also in the cast is Steven Norfleet, an openly gay actor. Known for his roles in Watchmen and Chicago P.D., Norfleet plays Aretha’s older brother, Cecil Franklin, who stepped-in as Aretha’s manager following her divorce from Ted White, played by Malcolm Barrett.
The series is presented in what the promotion folks refer to as “double-stacked episodes,” spread across four consecutive nights, beginning Sunday, March 21, at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT.
Those episodes will be available for streaming the following day on Hulu, with all eight episodes available to stream by Thursday, the day she would have turned 79.
It just so happens that Aretha Franklin and I share a birthday, along with Elton John, who will turn 74 on March 25.
Think before you miss this series, its stories and its incredible music. Or, risk being on a Chain of Fools. Especially tune in for the scene in which Erivo stares into Barrett’s furious eyes as she captures the intense emotion Franklin poured into I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You):