‘Genius: Aretha’s’ Courtney B. Vance on Tackling a Complicated Father-Daughter Relationship

Courtney B Vance Genius Aretha
Courtesy of National Geographic/Richard DuCree

Courtney B. Vance has a gift for tapping into rich and complex, larger-than-life men. In 2016, for example, he won an Emmy for his portrayal of real-life lawyer Johnnie Cochran in “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”; just last year he took on the role of George Freeman in HBO’s “Lovecraft Country”( for which he now sees a SAG Award ensemble nomination) and now he can be seen as Pastor C.L. Franklin aka the titular Queen of Soul’s father in National Geographic’s four-night event, “Genius: Aretha.”

How did you balance getting inside C.L.’s mind to portray him with the father-daughter relationship he had with Aretha? Did you have to separate and compartmentalize his story from theirs?

The generation that he came from were sharecroppers, and the idea that a Black man could actually go from sharecropping with no future to being the “Million-Dollar Voice” and having hundreds of thousands of people at his marches and his church — he was known around the world. So that man, and the shadow that he cast over his family, cost his daughters their mother; the balance in the family was completely upset because his muse was Aretha and everybody in the family knew it and they had to deal with it because he did not hide it. They were all harmed by it, but just like Joe Jackson, they would not be who they were without his larger-than-life self.

Seven years, it took Aretha to break through and find her own voice and when she did, she and he battled because it was, “I made you,” but “I’m here now, daddy.” So the journey and the tension between the two of them was palpable. Whatever else happened between them, no one knows but the family. No interviewer could ever get between them to find out what went down with the children that she had and all of the rumors. We don’t deal with [them] in our piece. At the end of the day, after all of that mess and all of that drama, all of it goes away because it’s all about her music: why she was a genius.

Speaking of rumors that have swirled around the family, were there specific misconceptions you wanted the series to clear up?

We show what we know and what we don’t know, we don’t show. What we know is that they, like every other family, were messy, and it’s the story of overcoming. Aretha had a daddy who knew everything and you couldn’t tell him nothing, and she went and married Ted White, who was a bitter enemy and rival [of C.L]. Ted was a hustler, a pimp, and used to move women around, and came visiting at C.L.’s house, and C.L. would bring Aretha down, and that’s just messy. He’d bring his daughter down to the parties with celebrities because, “Sing something, she’ll sing it right back,” and he would have her do that, and she met Ted. And so, when Ted and she got together when she was 16, 17, what could C.L. say? “Daddy, I met him in your house! He was good enough to come in your house.” We show that because that’s what it was. And we don’t show what happened to her mother because it’s cloudy and it would be speculation and gossip if we said exactly what happened because nobody knows: She died and Aretha stopped talking for a year, and C.L. had to do something because he knew she was going to be a star, so he said, “I’m going to take you on the road.” It was a mess, but out of that mess came some rebirth, and all we can do is celebrate that.

You’ve been very open lately about the importance about discussing mental health and therapy. How much of a help would hat have been for the Franklins then?

It would have. But Black folks didn’t do that back then, nor could they afford to do it. That was a white thing; you sucked it up and went on. All Aretha knew was that she could not not make it; she was going to make it. But she was not an overnight sensation like Nancy Wilson or Barbra Streisand. Aretha knew her voice in church [and] she could sing anything, but that wasn’t her voice: her voice was completely unique and it had to be found over time, and everybody was in the way of her finding it. She had to get away from those two guys. Everybody had to back off and give her time with a great band to find it.

What research most helped you tap into C.L.’s mannerism and behaviors?

Listening to his sermons, because there were hundreds of sermons he made because he was the first one to sell his sermons as albums all over the country. That was very easy, just to sit and listen and let him cascade over me over and over and over again, and hear rhythms and hear key words of his.

In Detroit the church and the club were right on the same block. So folks would leave the club at three in the morning on Saturday night, go change clothes, and go right to church. And so, in his mind music was music: secular and gospel music was the same and served the same function, again because of what people came through to get where they were. They needed something in order to be able to get back to work on Monday morning. With the 2020 eyes, I can’t judge it: we can’t judge how they made it work in their minds because Black folks, just like what’s going on today, got no reprieve from the po-po.

You play C.L. throughout the majority of the series and Aretha’s life, but not in the earliest flashbacks in the show. What went into that decision?

Anthony Hemingway, our EP and director, I’d follow him anywhere; if he’s doing something, I want to do it. And he sat me down and said, “Courtney, you don’t have to do it. You can do it if you want to, but it’s going to mean you’ve got to do the makeup and the wig.” I let it go and said, “Let the young boy do it and let y’all move.” It was a logistical thing for me.

What was the process to age you up for his final years?

A wonderful wig by Victoria Wood and then my own falling into his rhythms. The hardest part was getting his rhythms in the sermon — there were several of them — and then it was engaging the congregation of varying sizes: sometimes we were outdoors, sometimes we were in our big, home church, sometimes in a smaller church. But once I realized that was my church, I came in singing, “I will trust in the Lord, I will trust” and they would sing with me and then we’d start shooting.

Some of those sermons and larger crowd scenes during concerts were shot during COVID. How did adjusting for safety on set affect your process and performance?

We went back in October to do an episode and a half, so we had most of it, and so it took us a day to get our rhythm and be back. And once you’re back in the rhythm of the character, it doesn’t matter who’s there: our rhythms are stronger than the fact that we don’t have everybody there. [We] were only allowed a certain number of people in there, so we had to shoot with certain angles so it would look like there were more. And they’ve got to be spaced out and they can only be there for a certain amount of time; everyone has their own little group and they stayed with them. So it was a completely different way of shooting and you’ve got to get into that rhythm. But the focus was about keeping us safe.

How did working on the show affect your appreciation for Aretha’s music?

I’m from Detroit so I was raised on it and I know all her music. I didn’t know she had to struggle so hard to find her way, and that, to me, is the core of who she is: that she would not be denied. So many people came up out of the church, but there’s a whole other thing where folks would go down and get these Black entertainers and gospel singers and take their money. It happened over and over again, and that’s why singers like Ella [Fitzgerald] and Aretha, their managers were pimps: no white person knew how to go into the Black community down south and go into juke joints; it had to be somebody who was moving people. The world was different in terms of how Black people moved because white folks didn’t care about Black people. So we had to take care of ourselves, and we did it the best way we knew how. There were no rules back then, and there was no hep for Black folks back then; they had to do the best they could with what they had, and I celebrate them. I celebrate C.L. Franklin. Was he right in everything? No, but he did the best he could with what he had.

Things you didn’t know about Courtney B. Vance:

Age: 61 (Editor’s note: He is currently 60 but will turn 61 between the filing and publishing of this story)
Hometown: Detroit, Mich.
Favorite Aretha Franklin song: “Dr. Feelgood”
Philanthropic spirit: He is the president of the SAG-AFTRA Foundation and an ambassador for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
Up next: Peter Moffat’s upcoming AMC courtroom drama “61st Street”