Before we began trudging through the pandemic, two film projects about Aretha Franklin were announced. One was with multi-award winner Jennifer Hudson and there was “Genius: Aretha,” a project for National Geographic Television from Imagine Television Studios. Cynthia Erivo, also a multi-award winner and nominee, jumps off the screen as Franklin in “Genius: Aretha.” Imagine has produced several biopics for National Geographic Television. Imagine co-founders and co-executive producers for “Genius: Aretha were Brian Grazer and Ron Howard.
Suzan Lori-Parks was head writer, co-executive producer, and showrunner with overall creative authority for the four-part mini-series. Lori-Parks began working on a musical with Franklin before she died in 2018. A sneak preview of “Genius: Aretha,” episode one showcased some of the featured talent in front of and behind the camera.
“I did have a conversation with her, and she wanted me to write a stage musical about her life,” said Lori-Parks about working with Franklin. “I still had her voice in my head. So, when I was brought on to be the showrunner, I said ‘Wow, I’ve got the queen’s voice in my head informing everything.’” Lori-Parks has worked in film since 1966. She was the first African American woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize for drama for her 2001 play “Topdog/Underdog.”
Courtney B. Vance, another multi-award winner, is the indomitable Rev. C.L. Franklin. In this biopic, the relationship between Franklin and her father clearly informed her business and personal outlook. She learned how to conduct business, how to work with musicians, how to handle her relationships with men, but more importantly, how to speak her mind.
“Rev. Franklin was able to carve a path for himself and became one of the foremost preachers of the gospel in America,” said Vance in describing the character he portrayed. “Ms. Franklin refused to give up. That tenacity and will to push forward no matter the obstacle was instilled in her by Rev. Franklin from the time she was a little girl.”
Antonique Smith plays Franklin’s mother Barbara Franklin. Franklin deeply loved her mother and was broken-hearted when her mother left the home after dealing with emotional and physical abuse from Rev. Franklin. Patrice Covington portrays Franklin’s sister Erma Franklin, and Rebecca Naomi Jones stars as Franklin’s sister Carolyn Franklin.
From childhood, the three sisters were remarkably close. Erma and Carolyn sang background in the studio and on the road. These key actors were introduced during the sneak preview. It is clear this series showcases superb acting talent and outstanding singing voices. There was no dubbing of the featured actors. Smith, Covington, and Jones did impromptu belted out of songs, demonstrating they were no joke.
What viewers will capture from “Genius: Aretha” is how the “queen of soul” was influenced by more than gospel and r&b. Artists like Art Tatum, Dinah Washington and Charles Mingus frequented the Franklin home when Lady Soul was a child. She could sing a song and play the piano after hearing a tune only once. She followed her father and became an activist doing whatever she could to support the civil rights movement. The reason Franklin garnered so much respect from inside the music industry and from everyday people was because she gave her all.
“She was Black, an American soul sister, mother, musician, church woman, queen of soul. What is genius?” said Lori-Parks in a spoken word piece she composed about Franklin. “Genius is contagious. Genius is outrageous. It lights a spark. It endures. It shifts the paradigm. Genus is the closeness to the spirit. Genius is a connection to things that are larger than yourself and that’s the truth!”
“Genius: Aretha” premieres on March 21, 2021 at 9 p.m. ET on National Geographic Television over four consecutive nights. Click here to view the trailer.