It could be said that Suzan-Lori Parks was destined to tell the story of Aretha Franklin.
Not just because the “Genius: Aretha” showrunner is a celebrated playwright who won the MacArthur “Genius” prize, but because the legendary “Queen of Soul” once reached out to Parks asking her to write a stage musical about her life.
“I was living in Los Angeles at the time and her people got in touch with my people, and they set up this phone call, where Miss Franklin and I spoke,” Parks tells Variety ahead of the limited series’ premiere. “We had a wonderful conversation about what she would like in the musical, stuff like that. It was a really fun conversation. She wanted it to be beautiful, and she wanted it to, like we say, ‘put respect on her name.’ And I assured her that we would completely do that, and I do believe we have.”
The musical project never came to fruition, and Franklin died in 2018, succumbing to pancreatic cancer at age 76. But the opportunity to tell the singer’s story came back around when producer Brian Grazer asked Parks to sign on for the third installment of National Geographic’s “Genius.”
“He likes to FaceTime because he wants to see your face,” Parks laughs, recalling the conversation. “He said, ‘We’re going to do ‘Genius: Aretha Franklin’ next, would you be interested in showrunning?’ And I was just thrilled because the ‘Genius’ franchise previously was Einsten, Picasso and now Aretha Franklin, this is exciting.”
Parks says she was most excited because featuring Franklin expands the meaning of the term “genius.”
She describes Franklin “as someone who’s as paradigm-shifting as Einstein, someone who creates works as sustainable as Einstein’s and Picasso’s works, but also someone who brought different kinds of people together for the greater good of the world.”
And most importantly, she says, “You can turn on and Aretha Franklin record or listen to it on your favorite gadget and her music, her voice can give you the strength to carry on.”
Earlier this year, Parks displayed her knack for capturing the essence of legendary figures, writing the screenplay for “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (now streaming on Hulu). Parks also credits her leading ladies — “Genius: Aretha’s” Cynthia Erivo and “Billie Holiday’s” Andra Day (who is nominated for a best actress Oscar for her performance) — for the way they brought the legends to life.
“When I write a script, I tell the folks involved, ‘I wrote this so that you could shine,’” she says. “With Billie Holiday Andra just dove right in and Lee [Daniels, the film’s director], helped her continue to fly. She wasn’t alone; Lee was right there every day, and helped her create this beautiful [performance] and just do an amazing, mind-blowing job.”
Of Erivo, she adds: “I wrote the script for her to plumb the depths of Aretha’s character, and tell the truths of Aretha Franklin in a loving and respectful way that would shine light on Black people’s lives and to allow us to recognize the genius in our lives, and to allow us to find a way to continue in difficult times. And Cynthia has done every bit of that, so beautifully.”
Both actors’ singing chops, Parks notes, were a bonus.
“She’s amazing,” Parks says of Erivo in particular. “She would sing on set, and the whole set would get quiet. People would stop moving because they wanted to hear her. It was just beautiful.”
The key to cracking the story for the eight-episode limited series, Parks shares, was listening to Franklin’s music “because that’s where I found that I could really find her.”
She says the first song of Franklin’s that she remembers hearing as a child was “Rock Steady,” but the first song she wanted to place in the story was “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.”
“I wanted to look at that genius moment in her life where she walks into the studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala. In 1967,” Parks explains. “George Wallace — [who infamously proclaimed] ‘Segregation now, segregation forever’ — was running that state. I wanted to look at how she managed to find her sound in that kind of situation. She walks into the studio, all those white goes are there, so she digs down deep and comes up with something absolutely beautiful that is long lasting.”
She adds: “I wanted the music to work as it works for people in real life, where you hear a song and it takes you back to a place. Like when I hear ‘Rock Steady,’ I’m in Odessa, Texas in my parents’ living room, dancing the funky chicken with my Aunties. The story is a demonstration of her genius and the songs were an outcropping of that.”
In addition to Franklin’s music, the series explores her cultural impact and personal life — with all its trials and tribulations, including her experiences with domestic violence and her father Rev. C.L. Franklin’s (Courtney B. Vance) penchant for womanizing.
“The intent was always to be respectful, loving, and yet authentic,” she explains. “We didn’t want to whitewash it and make it family friendly to the point where it ain’t real. Because I wanted people, especially Black woman, I wanted us to watch and say ‘There’s a sister that I can relate to.’ I wanted to show the way that she had to struggle in the man’s world of the music business, but also the way that she had strong women in her corner — her sisters or Ruth Bowen, her booking agent, for example.”
The production team worked very closely with Franklin’s estate and some of her family members in prepping the show, but Parks did “mountains of research” watching countless hours of interview footage, reading old “Jet” and “Ebony” magazine interviews, as well as diving into Rock’s Backpages archives.
“I also did a lot of hanging out with Clive Davis, who knew her and worked with her for many years,” she says, explaining that pre-COVID they would spend time in Davis’ New York office to swap stories, before switching to weekly Zoom calls.
The one thing that surprised Parks during the research process though was how little she knew about Franklin as an activist.
“In her busy touring schedule, she made time to assist the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — devote her time free of charge, she would do concerts for them, she would take money out of her own purse and help pay for meals and fuel and gas costs for the buses,” Parks notes. “She would also support Angela Davis, and Sister Angela is left of center, so she wasn’t embraced all warm and fuzzy like by the status quo. Aretha ruffled a lot of feathers when she supported Angela Davis.”
The series also highlights Franklin’s friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who will be the subject of the fourth season of “Genius.” Parks won’t be involved in that show, but relished the chance to celebrate both the African American perspective and a Black woman’s place among geniuses in her season.
“It’s beautiful that she was a real champion of the Civil Rights Movement,” she says of Franklin. “There’s a scene [with Franklin and King] out on the fire escape: It’s Aretha Franklin day, and instead of seeing the big celebration like one would expect, I decided to craft an intimate scene between the king and queen and have them just talk about the beauties of being who they are and also the difficulties of being iconic people. You know, ‘Heavy is the head that wears the crown.’”
And in showcasing Franklin’s work as an activist, the series has a real opportunity to inspire the artists of today, Parks says.
“Artists are told sometimes to ‘shut up and sing’ or ballplayers ‘shut up and play.’ To recognize that there were folks, there were soldiers in our community back in the day, who stood up and spoke out when it was time to do so, that’s very empowering.”
“Genius: Aretha: premieres March 21 on National Geographic.