Fact Check: Addressing The Controversy With The Mini-Series “Genius: Aretha”

Let’s talk about “Genius: Aretha” on National Geographic.

“Genius: Aretha” is the third season of this acclaimed anthology series by National Geographic. Seasons one and two focused on Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso; now season three is all about the “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin.

Cynthia Erivo plays the late “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin in this series created by Suzan-Lori Parks (who had been collaborating on a Broadway play with Franklin), Clive Davis (the legendary record exec who once signed Franklin) and Academy Award winners Brian Grazer and Ron Howard.

“Genius: Aretha” has garnered huge ratings for Nat Geo TV despite some headlines and controversy surrounding Franklin’s family.

This project was approved by the Franklin Estate, and that’s why you hear many of the famous songs from the Queen of Soul’s career featured in the film. (The biopic “Respect” got the other half of the songs)

Aretha Franklin

So why are members of Franklin’s family asking fans not to support the mini-series? Simply, because they weren’t asked to be involved! And can I help you understand how Hollywood works? TV and film projects don’t have to work with family members on stories about famous people. Movies and TV projects are done all the time based off of source materials like memoirs and biographies. This is nothing new.

Halle Berry

You may have missed it, but let me remind you that in January 2020 one of Franklin’s sons Kecalf called for a boycott of the upcoming biopic “Respect” starring Jennifer Hudson after claiming the family wasn’t involved. But guess what? The Franklin Estate approved that project as well, plus music mogul Davis is also an exec producer on that one.

And to those who say, “Aretha only wanted Jennifer to play her,” well, I’ll just say their memory is lacking. In 2011, the “Day Dreaming” singer declared that Halle Berry was her top pick to play her in her biopic. When Berry respectfully passed on the opportunity, Franklin doubled down and asked her to reconsider.

Then in 2014, Franklin announced she wanted Audra McDonald to star in her biopic. The “Chain of Fools” singer had just seen McDonald in her Tony Award-winning role playing Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” on Broadway and was blown away by the performance.

Audra McDonald

There was also chatter about Fantasia being considered for the role as well, something Franklin herself mentioned in several interviews.

Then finally, seven years later, only eight months before she passed and at this point three or four failed options in—music czar Davis announced at his pre-Grammy’s party that Oscar winner Hudson would be playing Franklin in the biopic. To be clear, Franklin never publicly made that announcement herself.

Poster for “Respect” starring Jennifer Hudson

Of course it’s great when folks like Elton John and Ray Charles are involved in their respective film adaptations; but artists like Madonna and Bob Dylan have had them done on them as well and they opted out of supporting them.

Now that we’ve revisited the facts, the point of this message is to emphasize that celebrity biopics are produced all the time and the subject’s don’t have to give them their blessing.

That’s the life of a public figure! That’s show business!

Lastly, Franklin—who I adored as a music artist and just believe is one of the greatest vocalists that ever walked the earth—was a control freak. That’s no secret (and “Genius: Aretha” really shows you why).

Movie poster for “Amazing Grace” documentary

Remember, in 2015 Franklin sued to keep the filmmakers that had restored the damaged footage from her “Amazing Grace” live recording from putting the acclaimed film out. She even sued the film festival that allowed them to show the film.

Why, might you ask? Reportedly, Franklin didn’t want the film released due to equal parts of her resenting Hollywood for not making her a movie star like Diana Ross and because she signed a release that meant she couldn’t be involved in the creation of the film. She changed her mind on the control part and wanted to stop the movie.

It was an acclaimed Gospel album, her best-selling overall album and remains the best-selling live Gospel album of all time, but Franklin sued because she never wanted anyone to see it.

But after her death, “Amazing Grace” was approved by the Franklin Estate and finally released in April 2019 after nearly 30 years.

With that said, do yourself a favor and watch the TV mini-series “Genius: Aretha” and the upcoming biopic in the fall. Celebrate that the fact that this iconic artist had a career so much impact that multiple projects in various mediums are being done.

L to R: Aretha Franklin, played by Cynthia Erivo, Carolyn Franklin, played by Rebecca Naomi Jones, and Erma Franklin, played by Patrice Covington perform on stage. (Credit: National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

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