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“We serve the queen. We don’t serve ourselves,” showrunner Suzan-Lori Parks told The Hollywood Reporter during a January 2020 visit to the Genius: Aretha set in metro Atlanta. But just two months later, production would come to a standstill because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Before shooting resumed in September 2020 to complete the remaining three episodes, Parks tweaked the scripts to make sure scenes met the new COVID-19 protocols. “I think it altered the energy for the better,” Parks said in a follow-up interview when the show aired in March. “We really had to come together even more, as we had to stand 6 feet apart. We knew we were making something very beautiful, and we knew [putting] safety first was the only way we were going to cross the finish line.”
Nearly everyone on the set back in January 2020 had a vivid memory of when they fell in love with Aretha Franklin. For Parks, it was listening to the singer’s records and learning trendy dances alongside her aunts. For hairstylist Coree Moreno, it was watching Franklin perform at President Obama’s historic 2009 inauguration. Cynthia Erivo, who portrays the late singer in the series, says her earliest memory of the icon was listening to Franklin’s music in the back seat of her mom’s car on the way to school. Imagine the thrill when Erivo realized her hero was singing along during Erivo’s own performance at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2016.
“I think my job is to tell the story that I feel is the truest and to be as close to the script as I can be,” Erivo notes of her role. “We are telling a particular story, and it might change from person to person, production to production. I just want to make sure that whatever we have in our hands is done well and with the utmost respect.” (Notably, Jennifer Hudson portrays Franklin in the film Respect, due in theaters this summer.)
But not everyone has been fond of the Nat Geo production. Franklin’s son and other members of her family have claimed that Genius: Aretha didn’t take input from those closest to the singer.
“When a person of color is going to offer critique, I take that very seriously,” Parks said. “We worked really closely with the estate. We weren’t rogue out there doing shit. I would hope our show could please everybody on the planet. And it is like, ‘Darn, there’s family members who aren’t as pleased as we had hoped.’ ”
Those setbacks aside, Parks noted she believes the series accomplished its main goal: It challenged viewers to think of the word “genius” in a way that not only includes Picasso and Einstein but also the undisputed Queen of Soul. Noted Parks, “The franchise will never be the same, having now invited a Black American woman to the table.”
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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