The spark for Genius: Aretha was a result of a confluence of events, according to Brian Grazer, who serves as executive producer on the Nat Geo series. During the SXSW panel for Genius: Aretha, Grazer said that they had a long list people for the next installment of the series that spotlighted cultural icons like Einstein and Picasso. This list included scientists, Nobel laureates — but they never contemplated a musical artist, but when Aretha Franklin passed, he realized that the next installment was obvious.
Franklin grew up in a time that was filled with cultural divisiveness (in other words, it was a very racist time in history — but nothing much has changed if we are being perfectly honest) and her home life was difficult to navigate during that time. “This is a story that should be much more than a movie,” said Grazer, who was joined on the panel moderated by Sway and featuring showrunner Suzan-Lori Parks, star Cynthia Erivo, executive producer/director Anthony Hemingway and costume designer Jennifer Bryan.
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The Genius anthology series enters its third season on March 21 and will explore Franklin’s musical genius, her iconic career and the impact she left in music, activism and the world as a whole. Playwright-turned-showrunner Suzan-Lori Parks, was at Sundance promoting Native Son in 2019 when she got the call from Grazer to board the project. He asked her to helm the project because of her original voice and that “inherently comes from their soul”. That said, Grazer said that Parks was Franklin’s soulmate.
Parks was thrilled to tell Franklin’s story — not just her life story, but the power of Aretha Franklin through the lens of genius. She said, “This is an opportunity for the whole world to see Black American female genius — so on point for what we’re going through right now.”
“The power of the Black American female genius to my mind, as it has come down through my foremothers… and all my relatives, our genius is inclusive,” Parks stated. “Our genius is outside the box. Our genius can do things that keep on keepin’ on. Our genius can get out the vote. Our genius can make a way when there is no way.”
She continued to say how Franklin impacted her life and how it connected her to her family. Parks learned the funky chicken through Franklin but also learned that “Rock Steady” was a protest song. For her, the series was a wonderful opportunity to bring some of her own story and struggle as an artist to light.
Franklin once called Parks to ask her to collaborate on a musical of her life. Unfortunately, that never came to fruition, but she said she is blessed to tell her story through Genius: Aretha.
Much like Franklin, Oscar-nominated actress Cynthia Erivo has often used her own art as a platform for activism. However, playing Franklin is a tall order. Erivo admitted that she had a lot of sleepless nights in regards to playing the Queen of Soul. She wanted to get things as right and true as they possibly could. “That’s always the fight for any of the women I play.”
Erivo added, “I know that there is not just the responsibility to play them well, but to tell their stories the way they would want to see it. It always dawns on me that if this person was alive today and they were sitting with me watching this, would they be proud of seeing this? Would they be happy with how it’s portrayed?”
“It’s really about this person who is real, who existed, who left a mark on the world that we are all benefitting from — would they be pleased with what they saw?” Erivo questioned before adding, “Yeah, so there were a lot of sleepless nights.”
It’s no secret that Franklin, like many people, had a rough family life. She also was in an abusive relationship that is not often brought to light. The series does not gloss over this part of Franklin’s life, but the Genius team handles it with a delicacy that was fair and truthful.
“Throughout the whole series, we didn’t shy away from telling the truth,” said Parks. She talked about how the series addresses how Franklin had a baby at an early age and the strife she endured with her husband. Parks approached it with honesty.
“My goal and the goal of the whole show was to put respect on Aretha’s name,” stated Parks. “If we tell her story truthfully and honestly then some woman going through difficult times can say to themselves, ‘I’m not alone’.”
However, Parks points out that “there is more love than trouble” in Franklin’s life. Genius shows the icon’s life through both lenses truthfully and respectfully.
Erivo connected with Franklin and said that during her career she found it takes time to have people believe that she knows what she is talking about. “For me, there’s this constant struggle to make people who aren’t the actor that this actor has done the research…and is invested the same way everybody else is invested — if not more so,” she explains. “Now we are moving out of a space where we listen to women less but we are still in a space where a woman — a Black woman — has to reiterate and re-repeat herself in order for people to hear what she is saying. I’m prepared to do that.”
She punctuated that creative women like herself, Parks and Bryan need to keep one foot forward and keep pushing. “We end up creating spaces for ourselves and that allows us to be listened to.”