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Genius: Aretha, as in Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, is the latest limited series from Nat Geo to portray the life of a tectonic talent whose gifts, like those of Picasso in a previous season, have yet to be equaled.
The eight-part drama jumps back and forth between Franklin’s formative years as a girl-wonder singer on the gospel circuit through her time in New York as a would-be jazz vocalist under the tutelage of Columbia Records producer John Hammond to her groundbreaking recordings with Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler to her partnership with Clive Davis and his Arista Records label in the ’80s.
In an interview with THR Presents, powered by Vision Media, actors Cynthia Erivo, who inhabited the title role, Courtney B. Vance, who played her father, C.L. Franklin– a Baptist minister with his own ardent following–series creator Suzan-Lori Parks and Anthony Hemingway, who directed the pilot and four subsequent episodes, spoke about motivation, inspiration and the challenges that shaped their characters.
“I’ve been passionate about telling authentic Black stories for my whole life, and sometimes to tell an authentic story we have to free ourselves from the shackles of traditional chronology,” says Parks, a Pulitzer Prize winner for her play Topdog/Underdog, about taking a non-linear approach to telling the Aretha story. “So juxtaposing Aretha’s childhood with Aretha’s adulthood is a way of us getting a real sense of the entirety of her character – the way her family supported her, not only in her adulthood when she was trying to find her voice in New York. Her father was challenging her, taking her to task. But also in her childhood, she becomes pregnant at a very young age, [but] the father told her ‘it will not stop you from doing what you were meant to do.’”
Vance says that the odds against Aretha were so formidable, it’s a miracle she was able to rise to the top of her profession, much less wow parishioners in her father’s parish as an adolescent.
“For me the story was a family of overcoming, [because] Aretha shouldn’t have made it—two children by the time she was 15, and couldn’t figure out her voice in New York City,” says the Emmy winning actor (The People v O.J. Simpson. “She should not have made it. She should have given up.
“As we all do from our parents,” Vance adds, “[Aretha] took some of what they give to us and some of it hurts. But she was able to shake that mess off and keep singing and keep trying to find that voice.”
Much of Genius: Aretha is about the singer taking ownership of her artistry, of her career, of her activism–despite continual pushback by the men in her life. In this way, Erivo found parallels to her own trajectory, which made the role especially enticing.
“I think that whenever we are able to tell stories about women who make it a point and a duty to keep taking a step forward, and moving fear out of the way, no matter how many ‘no’s’ you may get in the pathway towards those things, I think it’s really important,” she says. “And I think Aretha did that over and over and over again… And there’s a lot of that in me. I think, ‘what is it that I can do that scares me the most but I know it’s something I should experience?’ It’s the way we become the best creators, when we embrace the unknown and the fear that comes with it. And I think she was doing that consistently in her life.”
This edition of THR Presents was brought to you by the National Geographic.
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