5 Things To Know About Cynthia Erivo's Aretha Franklin in Genius

"Aretha," the third season of the National Geographic series, chronicles the Queen of Soul's musical development and life.

by | March 19, 2021 | Comments

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Aretha Franklin, played by Cynthia Erivo, performs on stage after being crowned "Queen of Soul". (Credit: National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

(Photo by National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

Anyone who’s heard Aretha Franklin sing could tell you she’s a genius — but the third season of National Geographic’s Genius, which follows the trajectory of the Queen of Soul’s musical journey from childhood through the various stages of her career, pinpoints exactly how that genius manifested throughout her life.

Helmed by Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks, Genius: Aretha sees Emmy-, Grammy-, and Tony-winner Cynthia Erivo (one Oscar away from an EGOT) play Franklin throughout the decades of her adulthood, and newcomer Shaian Jordan play Little Re throughout her formative childhood years. And while it covers the biggest events in Franklin’s life, beginning with singing in her preacher father’s church (Courtney B. Vance plays C. L. Franklin) and continuing through the many evolutionary phases of her career, it’s not strictly a biography. Each era in the eight-episode series, which airs in two-episode blocks over four nights from March 21-24, was specifically chosen to highlight Franklin’s genius.

Picking those moments wasn’t too difficult a task for showrunner Parks.

“Say you walk outside and say ‘I’m looking for a dog; I’m looking for a cat.’ That’s what you’re going to be focusing on,” Parks said. “So if I continually repeated to myself, ‘We are telling Aretha Franklin’s story through the lens of Genius,’ [it] let us focus on those moments where she demonstrated her genius as we understand it: Where she alchemized her pain into sonic gold, where she brought different peoples together for a greater good, where she created things that will endure for long past her lifetime, where she did things that people thought, You’re crazy to try that, and she succeeded. I just continually focused on those moments. She has a wealth of them. What a life she lived.”

Read on to find out what else to know before tuning in to the season, which will land in full on Hulu on March 25, Franklin’s birthday.

1. Erivo Sang Live on Set

Because Franklin’s voice and musical sense are so intrinsic to her genius, the actor playing the legend had to have her own musical chops. Enter multi-award winner Erivo, who thankfully has plenty of experience giving her all on a daily basis. (Have you HEARD her sing “I’m Here” from The Color Purple? The performance that won her all those awards.) But even Erivo found certain aspects of Franklin’s oeuvre particularly challenging.

While recreating Franklin’s live gospel album Amazing Grace, she performed an abridged version of Franklin’s take on “Never Grown Old.”

“Aretha has this beautiful way of being able to sing a phrase that should be eight beats long and make it 16, and stretch it out with the breath that she takes,” Erivo explained. “There’s something about getting into a song that feels really challenging because finally you can let go of the semantics of it. You can let go of the process and really just feel it. The sentiment is that there is a place that is not here, that we might not know until we pass on, where you can live on forever, where you never grow old. I just thought it was a really beautiful moment to sit and sing, and we sang that live on set, and it just felt good.”

2. There’s No “Respect”

Aretha Franklin, played by Cynthia Erivo, performs at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. (Credit: National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

(Photo by National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

Listen, while Franklin has dozens of famous songs, there’s one in particular that she’s associated with that you will not hear in the series: “Respect.” There’s a simple reason for that — the show could not get the rights to it. (Jennifer Hudson plays Franklin in biopic called Respect, due out in August, so, uh, you might hear it there.)

But Parks and her team took that as a challenge.

“We wanted the story to lead and the songs to follow, so we didn’t want it to be a jukebox biopic kind of thing,” Parks said. “Because again, we’re looking at Aretha Franklin’s life through the lens of Genius, not through ‘turn on her hits.’ But secondly, just an obvious plain fact, we couldn’t get the rights to some of the songs. So we did what Black American people have been doing from the beginning, we make a cake out of what we got, you know what I’m saying? It’s a beautiful opportunity for us to focus on story. We get plenty of the hits, and we get a lot of lesser-known gems too.”

3. The Details of Franklin’s Young Life Will Shock Some Viewers

Grandmother Rachel (L), played by Pauletta Washington, with Little Re, played by Shaian Jordan, and her baby, Clarence. (Credit: National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

(Photo by National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

For people who only know Franklin as a singular musical legend, it might be jarring to learn about the singer’s difficult childhood — which included having children at just 12 and 14 years old. It was certainly new information for Jordan as she prepared to take on the role of Little Re.

“We didn’t really hear much about little Aretha’s life. The media doesn’t see that,” Jordan said. “Being able to see what she went through as a kid was a little different from what I studied and looked at. I looked at her interviews, I listened to her songs, and stuff, but that’s way different because we didn’t see her childhood on the screen.”

4. Aretha’s Relationship With Her Father and Her Siblings Was Always Complex

Choir and Rev C.L. Franklin, played by Courtney B. Vance, behind Little Re, played by Shaian Jordan, as she performs her first solo in her father's church. (Credit: National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

(Photo by National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

Franklin’s preacher father C.J. Franklin was a fearsome figure — at one point in the series, he’s described as loving Saturday night just as much as Sunday morning. But Vance understands how C.J. became the indefatigable figure he was: The son of sharecroppers in the early 20th century in the Deep South, he had two choices: “the pulpit or the plow.” When he chose the pulpit, he was kicked out of his house and had to sink or swim. It was that work ethic that C.J. brought to his work as a preacher, and when he realized how gifted Aretha was, he took advantage of that gift.

“To go from seeing what Black folks in the ’20s and the ’30s saw — their family relations dragged and beaten and burned and hung and shot,” Vance said, took an enormous toll on his psyche. “He instilled in his children, especially in Aretha, no matter how bad it gets, we’re going to keep going and keep going until we achieve our goals. There is a high cost for that living. There were no psychiatrists and psychologists for Black folks to sit on the couch and talk about [their problems]. You had to figure it out, and the people who were the most vulnerable at that time, who suffered the most, I believe were the women and the children — Black women and Black children caught it from every side.”

While Aretha’s sisters were also gifted singers, they didn’t compare to Aretha and knew that their little sister was the favorite of the family. That complicated dynamic would continue throughout Aretha’s life.

“There’s a cost for that talent and the cost was her relationships — her relationships with her father, her relationship with her husband, relationship with her children, relationship with her sisters,” Vance said . “They went through it because she was so supremely gifted but how she got there, she was the favorite. Everybody knew that, and there’s a cost for that in the internal family politics.”

And throughout it all, even though C.J. did leverage his daughter for his own gain, Aretha still loved her father and wanted to make him proud.

“In the end she was a young woman who wanted to do right by her father. She wanted to make her father proud,” Erivo said. “Though at the beginning and throughout her life they had a really complex relationship, there still was very much love there. I think she tried to find her own space that was outside of her father because for so long they were one and the same. And I think that even when that happened, there was still a part of her that wanted to be her father’s daughter.”

5. It Took a While for Aretha To Get the Credit She Deserved

Music producer Jerry Wexler (L), played by David Cross, talks with Aretha Franklin, played by Cynthia Erivo, in the studio. (Credit: National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

(Photo by National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

Parks establishes early on that although so many people — particularly men — in Aretha’s life tried to ride her coattails, it was Franklin herself who was steering the ship. She was the one who instructed her studio musicians about the sound she wanted, despite the fact that she didn’t manage to get producing credit on her albums for years. In the first episode, Franklin is recording what will become “Border Song” and stops the room of all white men to ask where the pizza box that was sitting on top of the piano went. That empty cardboard box created a different sound, she explained.

That initiative and confidence in her own gifts — and the fact that Franklin tried for a decade before she broke out on the music charts — inspired Erivo in her own musical career.

“How she was managing to [find] her voice, which then led to her being able to be bold enough to ask for the credit for the work that she was doing, which meant that she was able to be celebrated in the right way,” Erivo said, “it’s an inspiring thing to learn to do. To learn the ways in which she was able to stand up for herself — because sometimes it was a quiet storm, sometimes it was raging — to meander through all of those ways in which she found a way to plant herself was really special.”

Genius: Aretha premieres Sunday, March 21 at 9 p.m. on National Geographic Channel.