Cynthia Erivo stars as Aretha Franklin in National Geographic's "Genius: Aretha." (Courtesy of
Cynthia Erivo stars as Aretha Franklin in National Geographic's "Genius: Aretha." (Courtesy of

Cynthia Erivo is one of those actor names that leave you quietly wondering if she’s American or otherwise.

You don’t put that much stock into it unless you lack interest in finding out — or until you’ve seen her incredible acting in “Genius: Aretha,” which began streaming Sunday on National Geographic in eight two-hour increments.

The series stars the 34-year-old Grammy-winning Erivo as the incomparable R&B singer, whose life and career are told from the time she’s declared a noted child prodigy traveling from her Detroit roots on the early 1950s gospel circuit with her father C.L. Franklin (Courtney B. Vance) and his caravan of religious zealots. (Mind you, her father’s the philandering leader of the pack with silver-tongued rhetoric who openly proclaims a love for Saturday night and Sunday morning.) At one point, he tells admirers, “Aretha is not only just my daughter, but Aretha is just a stone saint.”

As the bio-series progresses, we are introduced to Franklin’s undeniable singing talent as a shy girl around age 10, coming into her own (brilliantly played by Shaian Jordan), as well as to the large contingent of people who were closest to her, including jealous and abusive husband Ted White (Malcolm Barrett), her paternal grandmother Rachel (Pauletta Washington), influential sisters Erma and Carolyn Franklin, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a slew of other talented current-day actors.

In addition to admiring Franklin’s impeccable makeup and wardrobe that included a bevy of sequined gowns and fine jewelry, the best part of the series is getting an up-close and personal glimpse of Franklin’s evolution from the times she performed in the early days at small clubs with few patrons to the top of her profession (through the end of 1974, she averaged more than one pop hit every two months).

However, along the way, Franklin had to contend with questions surrounding the identity of the father of her first son, whom she gave birth to at age 12. While Franklin never comes clear on that matter, suspicion seems to touch upon her father, who insisted his young daughter accompany him on the gospel tours where they shared separate beds in the same hotel rooms.

No doubt, the series will make many feel connected to Franklin, and fans of the iconic star, who died at age 76 in 2018 from pancreatic cancer, will be more than content to hear Erivo perform her hits, including “Chain of Fools,” “Respect” and “Call Me.”

Earlier this year, Erivo said during an interview on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” that portraying the vocal legend was “fascinating and brilliant and went through a lot and made a lot of great music.”

The series begins at 9 p.m. each night.

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