The « Genius: Aretha » showrunner explains why it is so historic – and progressive – to call a black woman like Franklin a « genius » and how she approached telling a legendary tale.
When National Geographic selected themes for the first two seasons of its critically acclaimed Genius anthology series, there was a collective nod: Yes, Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso are geniuses. You’re worth it! They are taught in schools! They’re complicated, mysterious, and a little dangerous! They’re men, of course!
The selection of Aretha Franklin for the third part of the Genius series: Aretha, which starts on Sunday on National Geographic and streams on Hulu the next day, then seemed a little provocative – and exciting. </ There is no person with ears who would deny the suggestion that Franklin is a musical genius. But bringing her into the ranks as the only theme in the series alongside Einstein and Picasso made it clear how her genius should be perceived – not to mention the recognition that black women are often denied.
Suzan-Lori Parks, Genius’s showrunner: Aretha, knows a thing or two about the connotation of the word and what it means to get the label. She was a former recipient of the MacArthur « Genius » grant and made history when she won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002 for her play Topdog / Underdog. This made her the first black woman to receive the award.
She was at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, where her adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son premiered when genius producer Brian Grazer called her, to gauge their interest in show running a new season centered on Franklin who had died six months earlier.
« I thought wow, they really want to expand the way we think about genius now » , she says. « It was like we always said, ‘genius’ are just people who are great or something. Einstein is a great person and a genius, and Picasso is a great person and a genius. But now, to include Aretha Franklin, let’s say, hmm, maybe genius is more than we thought. Maybe we can elaborate on the definition. «
Like the Einstein and Picasso iterations before, Genius: Aretha divides the timelines between talent than we do in the The public and the upbringing that led them there.
Tony winner Cynthia Erivo portrays Franklin as an adult, navigating the racism of the music industry, and juggling the alternate supportive and toxic relationships with men in her life – her father, her ex-husband and even Martin Luther King Jr. – as she ascends her throne as Queen of Soul.
Then there are flashbacks of Franklin’s upbringing, played by newcomer Shaian Jordan. Si e learn the influence her preacher and activist had on her (played by Courtney B. Vance). He saw the light in her before anyone else, but he also introduced the darkness. He pushed her into the spotlight at a young age as the opening act for his sermons on a traveling – and shameful – activism tour at the start of the civil rights movement. In his eyes there was no obstacle between his daughter and his fame – not even the two children she would have before the age of 15.
It is a justification for Franklin as a genius to see Erivo as Franklin, the performs the legend’s popular hits live on set. But the series is careful to capture the life experience that blew the soul in Franklin’s singing, and the work as a civil rights soldier that, while unrecognized, made her make history.
« Genius is something , with which you are born, but it also blooms in a certain context, « says Parks.
Her goal was to show Franklin’s musical abilities. It’s minutes on the first episode where a 1967 recording session in Muscle Shoals, Alabama demonstrates the star’s inimitable skills as a pianist and music theorist, not to mention her dexterity in dealing with the music industry’s systemic racism. But Parks also wanted to provide context for what, as a black woman at the time, she needed to be this good.
« Aretha’s genius blossomed in large part from what she went through, » she says. “Not just the hardships she endured. She became pregnant when she was 12 years old. That’s very difficult. But she was surrounded by the love of her family. And so her genius was allowed to continue to flourish. “
If we talk, Parks is, in hindsight, the singer and now an actress, Andra Day’s Golden Globe win. In addition to the show running of Genius: Aretha, the author also wrote the script for The United States vs. Billie Holiday. It’s been a long time to spend in the headspace of two legendary black women, their talent and their struggle for recognition.
The US v Billie Holiday reveals that the FBI has started a barbed operation against the singer, in which, in some cases her drug use was exploited and framed to arrest her to stop her singing « Strange Fruit, » a song that encourages the civil rights movement. Genius: Aretha focuses on Franklin’s responsibility as a voice not only for the radio charts but also for the revolution – regardless of what her industry advisors thought. « They had to fight, » says Parks. “They had to fight a lot. With the system. They had to endure to be smaller than they thought. And that’s not easy when you do a great job and people still think you are not that great. This is difficult. They may have had to believe in themselves more than other people just because the world had so little faith in them. So this inner strength that they constantly had to fall back on. «
When I ask if Franklin herself knew she was a genius, Parks takes a long pause.
» In her best days, she felt like she knew she was really good at that was what she did, « she finally says. “But I think traditionally black American women are not encouraged to consider themselves exceptional or awesome or anything. Were not. So we don’t automatically characterize ourselves that way. Maybe other people do, but not my group. It was really great to be able to encourage our viewers to think about putting the label on her and seeing her accomplishments through that lens. “
In Genius: Aretha you see Aretha Franklin singing in church for the first time. You see their formidable producer Jerry Wexler who would help lead their breakout to mainstream star. You see her partner with Martin Luther King Jr. to build a bridge between her white listeners and black fans. And you see them sing: « Never Loved a Man », « Respect », « Chain of Fools » and for the recording of the seminal 1972 album that led to a decades-long documentary, « Amazing Grace ». Needless to say, genius abounds. So it’s interesting that there is some kind of “controversy” behind the show. That has nothing to do with the content, but with the industry. Executive producer Brian Grazer told the New York Times that the Franklin estate approved the series before filming began, although Franklin’s son has since said it didn’t have the support of his family. The main headlines, however, have been that this isn’t the only Aretha Franklin project currently in the works.
Franklin himself selected Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson to portray her in a biopic that will later appear in the It will be released in 2021 and has been pushed back from its originally planned release last year due to the pandemic.
Skeptics have wondered whether two treatments are needed in the singer’s life, and so soon after her death. Invisible, the potential performances of Erivo and Hudson were played off against each other. Depending on who you speak to, the respective projects have been made redundant.
It’s an interesting discourse surrounding a « genius ». There are dozens of actors who played Albert Einstein. Within a year, two different actors won an Emmy and an Oscar for playing Winston Churchill. However, this entertainment legend, which paved the way for every subsequent black singer, assumes that only one project can exist about her life – that only one can possibly cover every facet of her legacy, let alone existence.
Who knows if it’s professional PR coaching, but it seems real: Parks is thrilled that another Aretha Franklin project is in the making.
« If 100 things were going on about Aretha Franklin that would be exciting, « she says. “There is so much material and so much wonderful stuff there that can be mined, researched, and embraced in the life of Aretha Franklin.”
Genius: Aretha is made up of eight episodes, and despite this space of being Going deeper, Parks strongly points out that his timeline stops long before Franklin reached milestones and made history. And that’s not to mention the different interpretations that different artists could have in their lives.
« There will be two different offerings celebrating this genius, this queen of the soul? The more the better. It is that Queen of the Soul! How awesome is that? «
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