The Hulu biopic series struggles to find the balance between narrative drama and the truth
Genius: Aretha is an origin story in two parts. The Hulu series is split between two stories: a young Aretha coming into fame while balancing family and an older Aretha coming into her own sound while moving from gospel to pop music.
The result is an ambitious portrait of a legend which traces her genesis as an artist from her childhood to the peak of her career. While some elements of the series shine, especially Cynthia Erivo — whose acting performance and almost effortless renditions of Aretha songs anchor the show — at other points, it stumbles.
Genius: Aretha Chain of Fools Trailer | National Geographic www.youtube.com
Genius: Aretha is the third season of National Geographic's Genius series. Each season follows a different pioneer, the first two being Einstein and Picasso. Showrunner Suzan-Lori Parks spoke on her approach to the series and her definition of "genius" as something distinct from the previous two seasons, saying: "Usually that scientist looks like Einstein as he thinks up brilliant formulas. And that's pretty great … but then there are other ways of viewing genius. That's what I started looking for."
Often, the balance between real life and an entertaining story suited for a biopic is difficult to find. Genius: Aretha finds itself sometimes choosing fiction over fact, exaggerating plot points to make more intriguing character arcs and to keep raising the stakes. As a dramatic work, the series is entertaining and well-fashioned, if not sometimes predictable. But as a reflection of Aretha, the most genuine moments are the ones where Erivo and the music get the chance to shine.
Controversy Plagues Genius: Aretha from the Beginning
Aretha Franklin was a notoriously private person. The Queen of Soul was an undeniable celebrity and therefore the center of much speculation, but she resisted it as much as she could. Even Sydney Pollack's incredible 1972 concert film Amazing Grace was a feat to release.
When it came to getting approval for a biopic, Franklin was resolute that nothing should happen without her blessing. Though conversations started as early as 2008 about a biopic starring Jennifer Hudson, that version only started production in 2019, after Franklin's death, and is set to be released in the fall of 2021.
RESPECT | Official Teaser Trailer www.youtube.com
And while Franklin approved of Hudson for the role in the upcoming Respect, Franklin's family have been vocal about their lack of support for the film (though the Franklins and MGM seem to be trying to collaborate) and even more vocal about their lack of support for Genius: Aretha.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Kecalf Franklin, Aretha's son, said: "This is about common, decent respect for our family … If I was to do a movie on your family, I would try and speak with you, your sons, daughters, grandchildren and people like that. And we just never felt like we got a shot to speak to them freely from [the] heart about our family member."
The studio released a statement in response. "The studio worked diligently to attain the endorsement of Aretha's estate, which we are grateful to have." it read. "We worked with many people who knew Ms. Franklin — from Clive Davis to members of her family's estate — to make sure we told her story in an honest and authentic way. This series is called Genius — it is a tribute to Aretha's genius — something we hope we can all celebrate."
Clive Davis, a subject of the series himself and a longtime collaborator with Aretha Franklin, was Executive Producer of the show, and many of the actors, including Erivo herself, attest to trying to do justice to the legacy of Franklin, but the controversy surrounding the show puts a damper on its credentials.
Fiction vs. Fact
A testament to the family's concerns, there are moments in Genius: Aretha when certain elements seem dramatized for the screen, despite a lack of historical evidence or conflicting accounts from the family.
One of the big points of contention is the portrayal of Aretha's father, C. L. Franklin. Played to great dramatic heights by Courtney B. Vance, the character is equal parts charismatic and controlling. He plays a version of an Evangelical pastor which has become an almost ubiquitous character: beloved by the congregation but driven by ego and prone to adultery.
His relationship with Aretha is close but complex. As both share the ambition to make Aretha a singer, the arc of Aretha's childhood scenes follows C. L. as much as her. His storyline sets up her later relationships with men in a clear-cut way that feels a little too archetypical and Freudian, and his character fills up a lot of dramatic space in the show.
In order to keep up the drama and raise the stakes, some moments are exaggerated and untrue. In the show, C. L. tries to pull Aretha out of school to pursue her career. Yet, according to the biography Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin by David Ritz in 2014, her sister Carolyn claims that their father was very concerned with prioritizing his children's education.
Similarly, though the series shows C. L. publicly humiliating Aretha for being a young mother, real life accounts say this was untrue — especially since C. L. had his own secret family with a concerningly young churchgoer.
There is also a pivotal scene in which Aretha is surprised to see her father at one of her Amazing Grace concert series after he was left off the guest list. In reality, this happened, but his exclusion was accidental and Aretha immediately invited him when she realized the error.
Cynthia Erivo as Young Aretha in the Amazing Grace Series
There is also some of Aretha's life which is altered — like the fact that her first child was not, as the film shows, the result of her adventures on tour, but rather a relationship with a classmate back home in Detroit.
Some of these dalliances with fiction and fact serve to propel the storyline into an easier, more digestible narrative, but come across as trite and, with the knowledge that they were fabricated, disingenuous. The best parts of the show are the ones where genuine emotion supersedes the drama, and Aretha's music takes precedence over her personal struggles.
A Storyline of Struggle
Another controversy of the show upon watching has been its focus on the men in Aretha's life.
Many have said that the show makes Aretha's genius seem like a byproduct of her tumultuous relationships with men close to her. NPR noted that "Genius: Aretha too often unfolds like a predictable biopic burdened by ham-handed storytelling" in how "it presents a succession of Black men who take advantage of Franklin, from her philandering father, to her philandering husband, to a man who left her pregnant at age 12."
Indeed, Genius: Aretha is marked by struggle from the very first scenes. The opening scene cuts between a performance and an encounter with journalists after the fact, in which Franklin dodges questions about her personal life which include a question about "who "calls the shots" — her father or her husband"?
The show's split narrative also sets up a dynamic that emphasizes the men present in her life: the first half following the arc of her relationship with her father, the second half tracing the tension between her and her husband.
Suzan-Lori Parks, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright famed for her complex narratives about Black families and Black women, rejects this criticism, saying: "There are a million stories about white men, let's say, climbing mountains. Wow, the world has an appetite for that, and womanizing along the way. But gee, show two, or three, maybe or four or five stories where a Black woman triumphs, but she has to go through some difficulty. And the world is tired of it."
GENIUS: ARETHA Ep. 5 – Young, Gifted and Black | National Geographic www.youtube.com
Parks continues, "This is a story of Aretha's genius, and her triumph and we see how she wins. She goes toe to toe with some of these people, whether it be disagreements with her husband, whether it be disagreements with her father, whether it be disagreements with her producers, whether it be conflict with her sisters – it's not only toe to toe with men. She's struggling, she's trying. She's triumphant. She's a fighter. We see how she wins."
Despite the sometimes predictable nature of the narrative, Parks does succeed in making Aretha's story feel triumphant. This runs counter to her other Hulu effort, the biopic The United State vs Billie Holiday.
The Billie Holiday story feels more tragic than triumphant, losing itself in Holiday's struggles and entanglements and failing to craft as coherent a story as Genius: Aretha. While the Holiday biopic is sprawling and unconfined, the episodic nature of Genius allows for a fuller picture of Aretha to be portrayed within a more structured form.
In the end, Aretha's story is powerful and relevant today.
That Aretha's story is one of triumph is part of the work she and others did to make it possible to advocate for new stories. Parks's interpretation of Aretha's struggle for control feels new and celebratory. Aretha's activism and her ability to get the recognition and creative freedom she deserved feels like an important part of her genius, and Parks treats it as such.
Though the series stumbles when it overplays the personal struggles, the sensationalized moments feel secondary to the importance of Aretha's legacy as a musician, an activist, and a genius.
Erivo, speaking about Aretha's role as an activist, has said: "It's important to know that people like Aretha were doing the work in their time as much as they possibly could and laying the groundwork for moments like this where we can actually make change, we can really shift."
Erivo as Aretha Franklin
"We don't realize that in her taking a stand and making songs like 'Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves' and having the relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King and making an album that really spoke to the time that was happening," she continues, "she was creating space to move us forward, bit by bit, to where we are right now."
As the show unravels, we watch young Aretha become the confident, resolute older Aretha who is fighting for her sound and for the recognition of her genius. Aretha's growth as an artist is tied to her growth as a woman influenced by dominant male personalities — in both, she learns how to advocate for herself in a system that doesn't expect, or want, her to.
Though some of the tropes may seem dated from a distance, Aretha's life is a reminder of how much courage and power it takes to demand respect.Parks makes it clear that, despite the pressures of domineering men, Aretha carved her way on her own and her genius is not because or in spite of them, but entirely her own — they just tried to take the credit.
So while it is important to demand new stories be told in which Black women are not always struggling against the holds of dominant men in dominant systems of power, the reality is that these are the real struggles that Aretha, and many other Black women at the time, were up against.