Aretha Franklin’s family is not happy about NatGeo’s ‘Genius: Aretha’ series

Pedro Pascal attends the Vanity Fair Oscar Party at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts...

National Geographic has begun airing Genius: Aretha. It’s their new miniseries about the life and times of Aretha Franklin, and Cynthia Erivo plays Aretha. Let’s start there! Erivo just played Harriet Tubman a few years ago and there was some criticism that she didn’t look anything like Tubman, and that producers should have tried harder to find an American woman to play such an iconic American (Erivo is British). Now she’s playing Aretha, another iconic American? Eh. But it turns out that the real drama is between Aretha’s family and NatGeo. This production didn’t want any input from the Franklin family.

There may be two Aretha Franklin biopics coming out this year, but only one so far is getting an endorsement from members of the Queen of Soul’s immediate family. Earlier this week, the late singer’s granddaughter, Grace Franklin, posted a TikTok of her family protesting the release of Genius: Aretha, NatGeo’s four-part series starring Oscar-nominated actress Cynthia Erivo as Aretha. The series, for which Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks is showrunner, premieres on Sunday. In the clip, she’s chanting along with her parents, siblings, and friends, “This movie has to go! This movie has to go!”

“As the immediate family, we feel that it’s important to be involved with any biopic of my grandma’s life, as it’s hard to get any accurate depiction of anyone’s life without speaking to the ones closest to them,” she says later in the clip. “During the process of writing, directing, and filming this movie, we’ve reached out to Genius as a family on multiple occasions where we have been disrespected and told we will not be worked with. As the immediate family — emphasis on immediate — we do not support this film and we ask that you also do not support this film, as we feel extremely disrespected, and we feel there will be many inaccuracies about my grandmother’s life.”

In a phone call on Friday, her father and Aretha’s son Kecalf Franklin supported his daughter’s words. “What we’ve found out in the past is that usually when people don’t want to work with you, that is a prelude to some type of unprofessional behavior or a prelude to some type of untruth or slander, so we’re not quite sure where we’re going to see in this series,” he tells Rolling Stone, adding that he has not yet seen any clips from Genius and will not be watching it Sunday. “That’s usually the case when people say that they don’t want to work with you.”

[From Rolling Stone]

I mean… all of this. I don’t watch those NatGeo series because they seem like a nursery-school version of what actually happened. I don’t really even understand why NatGeo thinks they should be the channel to make these miniseries either? And if you’re going to barge in and make the series, why would you go out of your way to piss off the family? Yikes.

Embed from Getty Images

Photos courtesy of Avalon Red, NatGeo, Getty.

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19 Responses to “Aretha Franklin’s family is not happy about NatGeo’s ‘Genius: Aretha’ series”

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  1. Savu says:

    All I’ll say is that I know people who used to live in Aretha’s building, and they were shocked and disappointed by her behavior toward others. Maybe those were just bad days, who knows! A quick Google shows so many other stories of unkind moments.

    I wonder – and I have no evidence to back this up, just an idea – whether NatGeo is trying to tell a more real story, warts and all, and maybe including the family in production would’ve opened doors to drama and lawsuits, and legally it’s best to just avoid it. We all want the people we love represented in the best way, I can’t imagine if the entire world knew my mom or grandma, and they knew about her not-so-nice moments too. I wonder if that’s a decision from legal, that’s all I mean.

    • Al says:

      I wondered the same thing. Also, the biopic of Aretha is very different from everyday people; her life and work are a valuable business. There is an image to protect and I have no idea how much her image matched her real life personality. I have no horse in this race, whether it’s Aretha’s portrayal or the selection of Cynthia. As a history major, however, I would like to see a fair representation of her life.

      Side note: It’s noticeable in “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the Queen documentary what can happen if the participants control the narrative. Both were produced by Queen and they offered a sanitized version, often at the sake of Freddie Mercury’s reputation.

    • I wonder if the family not only tried to control the story, but would only cooperate if they were paid (Documentaries do not pay people to participate) or they wanted them to sign docs saying they would get editorial control of the final product, etc. I have seen this A LOT in documentaries. The family want control and when they don’t get it they trash the project.

  2. Cait says:

    Cynthia Eviro has made her disdain for Black Americans clear but here she is playing another one of our icons. As if her playing Harriet Tubman wasn’t bad enough. White writers, producers and hiring agents know what their doing. Divide and conquer let black Brits get jobs they will not give black American actors. Divide it up to “good blacks “and “bad blacks”. I dont understand why the black British actors don’t come together and build up the industry in the UK the way black Americans did here. I mean did we face a slew of hurtles yes but we still fought for our voices and stories to be told.

    • Mel says:

      Wait, Black people can’t play Black people anymore unless they have they’re from the same place? Do we not understand what acting is? Now casting has to be so specific that it can only be EXACTLY to type? Do you realize how damaging that mindset can be to the careers of POC? IF the writer of a script sees a character as white, they can use that mindset to not cast a POC , we’re coming out of that now why start limiting casting again?

      • Eyeroll says:

        Yeah I really don’t get this notion that black American roles have to be played by black Americans. Especially with the limitations for POC.

      • Mia says:

        Did you miss the part where Cait said Cynitha as a Black British actress has said some very snobby and rude things about ADOS/FBA?

        Other groups of people really don’t understand that while black people are all the same race, that doesn’t mean parroting ‘we are all black’ is helpful in conversations like these either.

        In the attempt to be ‘woke’ you sometimes miss the nuance and background of some situations/conversations. You don’t seem to be very familiar with how other black ethnicities/minorities are sometimes used as a tool to spread stereotypes about ADOS/FBA and promote ideas about systemic racism being a myth.

        Your lack of background on this is evident in how you use POC as a substitute for black. POC and black experiences are not a catch-all. It is a very useful tool for white liberals who have co-opted wokeness and is used to further reinforce whiteness as the standard and all other races get lumped into vagueness and across-the-board experiences.

        Cait has every right to point out the anti-black American sentiment that often comes up in the black diaspora/the fact that many non-American black actors have recently been saying very rude things about ADOS/FBA and their unique experience in the USA yet are playing people/icons apart of that very group. I am from the Caribbean and this anti-black American sentiment is spreading and seems to be generational.

  3. whateveryousay says:

    It made no sense why this coming out with the other movie and also why Cynthia is now the go to black woman to play iconic African American women.

  4. BayTampaBay says:

    I watched both seasons of NatGeo “Genius” Series focusing on Einstein & Picasso. I thought they were both very good for non-streaming shows. The third season was supposed to be about the life of Mary Shelley but for some reason the producers decided to to Aretha Franklin instead. I plan on watching the Aretha Franklin season.

    The fourth season will be about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and will be on Disney+ not NatGeo.

  5. kif says:

    Families are the least objective sources of information regarding an individual life’s. Maybe they wanted to influence the way this biopic was to be done – which does not exactly mean what they want is for the better. The best biopics are those that are well-researched from different sources. I saw NatGeo Genius series on Einstein and I think it was good. It didn’t show him as this god-like genius but a flawed human. Nobody is perfect after all. Unfortunately, I can no longer afford access television so I never got to watch the other bios that they did.

  6. Princess Peach says:

    I can’t stand Cynthia Erivo. She has made numerous anti-Black American comments. She is also not talented and makes the same wide eyed expression in all her roles. And she was the other woman in Lena Waithe’s marriage. She’s just so, so unlikable.

  7. Snuffles says:

    The OFFICIAL biopic “Respect” with Jennifer Hudson playing Aretha (who hand picked her) is coming out this summer.

  8. kerwood says:

    I watched part of it last night and I thought it was pretty bad. I don’t what they were thinking, casting Eviro because she is NOT Aretha. It’s not so much her looks because Chadwick Boseman didn’t look ANYTHING like either Jackie Robinson or James Brown. But Boseman was an excellent actor and he conveyed the SOUL of both (completely different) men. In the segment I saw, it looked like Aretha was either heavily medicated or in some sort of trance. It was horrible. The little girl who played Aretha when she was 13-14 did a better job. I say, don’t waste your time.

    There are a lot of stories about how rude or ‘not nice’ Aretha could be. That woman was used and abused most of her life. She had two children by the time she was 15. Aretha was labeled ‘promiscuous’ when she was a little girl, as most Black girls are. The truth is that Aretha Franklin was a RAPE VICTIM at least TWICE before she was old enough to drive. Suffering doesn’t always make people ‘nice’ and Aretha SUFFERED. Aretha took that pain and turned it into art that changed 20th century music. I don’t care if she was ‘rude’. She was the fucking QUEEN.

    • Shadeau says:

      Thank you kerwood! People need to really interrogate second-hand stories about Aretha Franklin for bias. As we’ve had ample evidence with the Duchess of Sussex , there’s a tendency for Black women to be labeled as aggressive or mean or what have you in a way that White women or men would not for the same behavior. Nobody’s perfect but Ms. Franklin did indeed have a painful life in many ways and there are some pretty unsavory rumors attached to her that I could see her family being wary about being dragged up again. She also did a ton of work for the civil rights movement above and beyond her music career that she doesn’t get enough credit for.

    • Original Jenns says:

      I really like this viewpoint, and it’s something I need to remind myself of when I am in the moment judging, which I have a lot lately due to pandemic strain (no excuse, just the mind is tired).

      When your default is pain or the expectation of pain or fear or distrust of abused, your attitude and personality are absolutely going to be affected by that.

      I hate the phrase “hurt people HURT people”, because I think it’s misused a lot, but I think it fits rather well here, with this type of life experience.

    • Anna says:

      Thank you @kerwood x 1000000
      and add to that that Black women are always expected to be kind and “nice” and helpful (ever the unpaid support system for everyone else) and are vilified when we’re not. But no one ever cares about the pain and trauma we are put through. She made a lot of people rich, but she’s supposed to be sweet on top of that.

  9. MissMarierose says:

    I’m probably dating myself with this comment, but National Geographic, the magazine, was known for exploitation of African women back in the day. So, having their tv channel create a biopic of one of the most prominent African-American women of the 20th century makes me a little uncomfortable, even before we get to the issue of Cynthia Ervo or the Franklin family’s position.

  10. Bobbie says:

    I can understand why the family members are upset, but the writers arent required to talk to them