Pulitzer Prize winning showrunner Suzan-Lori Parks was tasked with a massive responsibility: telling the story of the most beloved Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. The highly anticipated third installment of National Geographic’s anthology series, Genius: Aretha, is set to air on March 2l at 9/8c. The heart wrenchingly uplifting miniseries chronicalizes the unfortunate events that preceded Franklin’s (played by Tony Award winner Cynthia Erivo) rise to stardom.
For an actor to capture the true essence of Aretha Franklin, a strong voice is a must; autotune just won’t do when covering her laundry list of ground-breaking soul and R&B hits like, “Do Right Woman,”“Do Right Man.” “Ain’t No Way” and of course, “Respect.” Erivo proved her vocal prowess and then some within her run as Cecile Harris Jordan in the 2015 Broadway revival of The Color Purple, a role originally portrayed on screen by Whoopi Goldberg. Her bone chilling performance of the show’s “11 o’clock number,” I’m Here, during her victorus night at the 70th Annual Tony Awards has received over 1.8 millions views on YouTube.
It takes more than a pretty voice to truly capture Franklin’s complex life, there’s so much depth to it that showrunner Parks makes great leaps to incorporate into the show. Scenes from the singer’s life include moments of crude mistreatment from her first husband and manager, Teddy White (Malcolm Barrett), to her walking alongside the likes of Civil Rights leaders in the fight for racial equality.
“She’s also a joy to work with and very disciplined as an artist,” Parks told The A.V. Club, “Cynthia is a devotee of Aretha Franklin. She has a lot of love and admiration for her. She’s not merely mimicking; it’s not like that. She is channeling the spirit of the queen”
Parks discussed the importance of this story in today’s social climate with TV Line, “You learn from experience, whether it’s your own or someone else’s,” the showrunner says, “There were many inflection points in the ’60s and ’70s that needed strong, loud leaders who helped contribute to the river that brought change to injustice.”
Much of the screen time is said to be dedicated to Franklin’s young years and the relationship between her and her highly influential father. Her father, the God-fearing minster, was the leading minister for such powerful civil rights movement leaders. Though he was known to enjoy a good party, his silence and integrity was instilled in Franklin, making her the supernova talent we know and admire.
As past seasons of National Geographic’s Genius were dedicated to historical figures that resonate with their target demographic—such as Albert Einstein and Pablo Escobar—the decision to tell the tale of this legendary songstress is pleasingly unexpected. When it comes to biopics, we look for stories that resonate with us and tap into our soul. In a time when female and POC voices need to to be elevated, viewers will certainly tune in to see her touching story play out. Genius: Aretha is said to be a huge contender as the tear jerking phenomenon of the season. We look forward to seeing what this eight-part anthology series has in store.
‘Genius: Aretha’ premieres Sun. March 21 at 9/8c with episodes uploaded to Hulu the next day.
By Omar Letson