When National Geographic selected the subjects for the first two seasons of its critically lauded Genius anthology series, there was a collective nodding in agreement: Yes, Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso are geniuses. They are worthy! They are taught in schools! They are complicated, mysterious, and a little dangerous! They are, of course, men!
The selection of Aretha Franklin for the third installment of the series Genius: Aretha, which launches Sunday on National Geographic and streams on Hulu the next day, seemed then a little provocative—and exciting.
There’s not a person with ears who would dispute the suggestion that Franklin is a musical genius. But vaulting her to the ranks alongside Einstein and Picasso as just the third subject in the series made a point about how her genius should be perceived—not to mention the credit that Black women are often denied.
It challenged the myopic thinking of what qualifies as genius, and more specifically who.
Suzan-Lori Parks, the showrunner of Genius: Aretha, knows a thing or two about the connotation of the word and what it means to be given the label. She’s a former recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Grant, and made history when she won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play Topdog/Underdog in 2002, making her the first Black woman to be awarded the honor.
She was in Park City at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where her adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son premiered, when Genius producer Brian Grazer called her to gauge her interest in showrunning a new season focused on Franklin, who had died six months earlier.
“I thought, wow, they now really want to expand the ways we think about genius,” she says. “It was like we used to say ‘genius’ is only people who are tall, 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, we’re saying, hmm, maybe genius is more than we thought. Maybe we can elaborate on the definition.”
Like the Einstein and Picasso iterations before it, Genius: Aretha splits timelines between the talent as we came to know her in the public eye and the upbringing that led her there.
Tony-winner Cynthia Erivo portrays Franklin as an adult, navigating the racism of the music industry and juggling the alternately supportive and toxic relationships with men in her life—her father, her ex-husband, and even Martin Luther King Jr.—as she ascends to her throne as the Queen of Soul.
Then there are flashbacks of Franklin’s upbringing, acted out by newcomer Shaian Jordan. You learn about the influence her preacher and activist father had on her (played by Courtney B. Vance). He saw the light in her before anyone else, but also introduced the darkness. He pushed her into the spotlight at a young age as an opening gospel act to his sermons on a traveling—and debaucherous—activism tour at the dawn of the civil rights movement. In his eyes, there was no obstacle that could come between his daughter and stardom—not even the two children she would have before the age of 15.
Seeing Erivo as Franklin performing the legend’s beloved hits live on set is its own justification for Franklin as a genius. But the series takes care to frame the life experience that bled the soul into Franklin’s singing, and the work as a civil rights soldier that, while unappreciated, ensured she made history.
“Genius is something you’re born with, but it also flowers in a certain context,” Parks says.
Her goal was to make explicit Franklin’s musical prowess; it’s minutes into the first episode when a 1967 recording session in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, proves the star’s inimitable skills as a pianist and a music theorist, not to mention her dexterity at navigating the music industry’s systemic racism. But Parks also wanted to provide context for what it took for her as a Black woman at the time to be that good.
“Aretha’s genius flowered in large part because of what she went through,” she says. “Not only the hardships she endured. She became pregnant at age 12. That’s very difficult. But she was surrounded by the love of her family. And so her genius was allowed to continue to flower.”
When we talk, Parks is in the after-glow of singer, and now actress, Andra Day’s Golden Globe win. In addition to showrunning Genius: Aretha, the writer also scripted the screenplay for The United States vs. Billie Holiday. It’s a long time to spend in the headspace of two legendary Black women, their talent, and their struggle to be recognized.
“Einstein is a great person and a genius, and Picasso is a great person and a genius. But now to include Aretha Franklin, we’re saying, hmm, maybe genius is more than we thought.”
The United States vs. Billie Holiday reveals the FBI launched a sting operation against the singer, in some cases exploiting and framing her drug use in order to arrest her so that she would stop singing “Strange Fruit,” a song that energized the civil rights movement. Genius: Aretha centers the responsibility Franklin felt to be a voice not just for the radio charts, but for the revolution—no matter what her industry advisors thought.
“They had to fight,” Parks says. “They had to fight a lot. With the system. They had to endure being thought of as lesser than. And that’s not easy, when you’re making great work and yet people still think you’re not so great. That’s difficult. They had to believe in themselves maybe more than other people did just because the world had so little faith in them. So that inner strength that they had to constantly call on.”
When I ask if Franklin herself knew she was a genius, Parks takes a long pause.
“On her best days, I feel like she knew that she was really good at what she did,” she finally says. “But I do think that traditionally Black American women are not encouraged to think of themselves as exceptional, or genius, or anything like that. We’re not. So we don’t automatically characterize ourselves like that. Maybe other kinds of folks do, but not my group. So it was really great to be able to encourage our viewers to consider that, to put that label on her and see her accomplishments through that lens.”
In Genius: Aretha, you see the first time Aretha Franklin sang in church. You see her impress producer Jerry Wexler, who would help usher her breakout to mainstream stardom. You see her work with Martin Luther King Jr. to build a bridge between her white listeners and Black fans. And you see her sing: “Never Loved a Man,” “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” and, for the recording of the seminal 1972 album that led to a decades-in-the-making documentary, “Amazing Grace.”
Needless to say, the genius abounds. It’s interesting, then, that there’s been “controversy,” of sorts, behind the series. That’s not to do with the content but with the industry. Executive producer Brian Grazer told The New York Times that the Franklin estate endorsed the series before it began filming, even though Franklin’s son has since said it did not have his family’s support. But the major headlines have been made over the fact that this is not the only Aretha Franklin project in the works.
Franklin herself selected Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson to portray her in a biopic that will be released later in 2021, pushed back from its original planned release last year due to the pandemic.
Skeptics have wondered whether there’s a need for two treatments of the singer’s life, and so soon after her death. Sight unseen, Erivo and Hudson’s potential performances have been pitted against each other. Depending on who you talk to, the respective projects have been rendered redundant.
It’s an interesting discourse to surround a “genius.” There are dozens of actors who have played Albert Einstein. In the span of a year, two different actors won an Emmy and an Oscar for playing Winston Churchill. But in the case of this entertainment legend, who trailblazed a path for every Black singer that followed, there’s an assumption that only one project about her life that can exist—that only one could possibly cover every facet of her legacy, let alone existence.
Who knows if it is expert PR coaching, but it seems genuine: Parks says she’s thrilled that there’s another Aretha Franklin project coming down the pipeline.
“If there were 100 things going on about Aretha Franklin, that would be exciting,” she says. “There’s so much material there and so much wonderful stuff to be mined and explored and embraced in the life of Aretha Franklin.”
Genius: Aretha is eight episodes, and, even with that space to go in-depth, Parks is emphatic in pointing out that its timeline stops long before Franklin kept reaching milestones and making history. And that’s not to mention the different interpretations that different artists might have on her life.
“There’s going to be two different offerings celebrating this genius, this Queen of Soul? The more the better. It’s the Queen of Soul! How great is that?”