From her soaring voice to her mesmerizing presence, Aretha Franklin was the definition of star power. So it just does so that a current group of biographers looking to bring their lives to the big screen includes Oscar-nominated up-and-coming star Cynthia Erivo (Harriet, Widows, The outsider) whose golden chant seems to lead them in an aretha-like direction. Developed by Noah Pink and Ken Biller, the National Geographic series genius dramatized the lives of Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso in the first two seasons. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks recently wrote the screenplay for the third season The USA versus Billie Holidaywas made to write the story of Franklin’s life.
Parks makes some inelegant choices, weaving black and white flashbacks of Franklin’s unstable church upbringing with the vibrant, colorful fashion of her adult glory. In the eight-hour, eight-part miniseries she also deals with the bigotry of the era; the moral hypocrisy of the men in Franklin’s life, such as their silver-tongued preaching father, CL Franklin (Courtney B. Vance); and their difficult rise to fame amid their mismatched personal lives. There is stunning costume work and breathtaking performances along the way. But beyond the glitz and glamor, Parks’ Genius: Aretha is a flat homage to the legend of the soul, which has stalled due to Erivo’s miscast and Parks’ reed writing.
The early going from genius records the difficult hurdles in Franklin’s career by placing the audience in the midst of their tumult I have never loved a man the way I love you
This weakness appears again in the series, especially in the fourth episode when it is politically awakened by the civil rights movement. Unfortunately, Parks silos Franklin’s growth into individual episodes rather than teasing their maturation beyond the period of the series. So when Franklin demands hits, when she expresses her political beliefs, when she stands up for herself, these be ats feel more mercurial and limited than like the organic progress of someone coming into their own.
The sparse, flat font also underestimates how men like Franklin’s father and husband Ted White used their talent for individual enrichment. While Franklin is portrayed only as a glorious talent with no depth, even less attention is paid to composing the interpersonal dynamic in her life. Her miserable manager husband (Malcolm Barrett), who also works as a pimp, exudes a desperate opportunism supported by a false sense of bravery. While Barrett understands the dime-store personality of a man standing out in high society like a cheap suit on a discount rack, there is no sense in how these two different personalities fell in love.
Her father of two is also attached to her fame. He grooms her for fame from a young age, but it’s not entirely clear why he is so eager for her to find fame. The elder Franklin is a fun role. A mess of contradictions, he’s pious yet violent, sweet but mean, persuasive and yet ineffective except on money matters. The elder Franklin is a caricature, and to his detriment, Vance leans into the caricature.
Erivo rings wrong too. For one thing, she doesn’t look like the queen of the soul. Despite Erivo’s fantastic singing, she doesn’t sound like Franklin, singing or speaking – Franklin spoke with a clear Mediterranean expression that Erivo cannot reproduce. Erivo also lacks the artist’s aura. Franklin exuded star power even in her shy jazz standard days, a self-confidence that was reserved for the over-talented. It is a presence that can hardly be copied. And while Erivo may dress in Franklin’s glittery blue-green dresses and shiny light green dresses, she is completely miscast.
The one component that works is the way Parks extrapolates Franklin’s childhood on the provocative gospel circuit. At the age of 12, while out and about with her father, Franklin experienced his femininity up close and became acquainted with alcohol, parties, and sexually predatory adults. Parks contrasts the lascivious lifestyle of gospel singers and preachers on Saturday night with their holy sermons on Sunday morning to show the hypocrisy that has ruled the church. As the series examines the seldom depicted shabby underbelly of wandering preachers, Sanai Victoria captures young Franklin adoring her father despite knowing his moral flaws. Her expressive eyes and piety embody the youthful Franklin better than Erivo the adult version.
Genius’ Inconsistent focus makes the water even more cloudy. It’s unclear what story Parks wants to tell. She focuses on Franklin’s childhood, but gives her a brief glimpse as a mother. Instead, she is more interested in the circumstances surrounding her pregnancy – the first comes when Franklin is only 12 years old – than in the life Franklin built for her children afterward. The series is decorated with invigorating musical numbers, but they are not among Franklin’s jaw-dropping hits like “Respect”, “Think” or “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”.
Instead, Parks staged covers such as “Border Song (Holy Moses)” and “Son of a Preacher Man”. The performances are amazing, but they do little to help advance the story or say anything about Franklin. The strong thematic elements that anchor the first half of the series also fade into a shallow gray puddle of stunted dialogue in the second half. Martin Luther King and Dinah Washington praise Franklin by saying, “You are a legend,” “You are talented,” and so on, without adding another dimension to it. Similar to the men who make her a commodity, the singer rarely sees writing beyond her talent.
The only character who treats the Queen of Soul as an autonomous human is her boyfriend after Ted White, who ironically TI as Ken Cunningham. Given that the series exposes the men in Franklin’s life as violent and unfaithful, and even accuses a few of pedophilia, it is confusing to see TI as a loving saint and the recent allegations he makes drugged and sexually assaulted women. To be fair, these allegations are new and will pop up after filming is complete. The dissonance between man and character is still a hurdle. Parks’ Genius: Aretha is full of obstacles and ravines, not only because of this unplanned disaster, but because the Queen of Soul is portrayed as the poor in her own story. Unfortunately, anyone looking for a homage to their life will only find an ingenious dress-up game here.
Genius: Aretha will premiere two episodes per day on National Geographic March 21-24, with each episode arriving on Hulu the day after its premiere.