Inside the mind of Genius: Aretha

Highlights

Little Ree’s doll, battling COVID, and understanding Aretha – Suzan-Lori Parks, Executive Producer, writer and showrunner of Genius: Aretha on National Geographic (DStv channel 181) takes us inside the show, coming soon to DStv

Exploring the mind of a genius requires a special kind of ingenuity. Multi-award winning writer Suzan-Lori Parks (Pulitzer Prize winner for her play Top Dog/Underdog and winner of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant) had more than 1 battle ahead of her and her team, as executive producer, writer and showrunner of Genius: Aretha, the latest season of National Geographic’s (DStv channel 182) biographical drama series.

Creating any true story about Aretha Franklin (played in the series by Cynthia Erivo), her genius, and the events that shaped her, meant getting a modern global audience to appreciate the context that Aretha came from within the continuing civil rights struggle and the particular obstacles that plague black women in particular at home and at work in the United States. And it meant making their way through COVID-19 to get there.

But it was also the opportunity for Suzan-Lori to revisit a passion project. “I had conversations with Aretha Franklin years ago when she was considering doing a stage musical about her life. I still have her voice in my head,” she reveals. So when Genius: Aretha’s Executive producer Brian Grazer approached her to come onboard, ‘I said, ‘Okay, I’m ready to serve the queen’.”

Watch Genius: Aretha S3 from Wednesday, 30 June on National Geographic (DStv channel 181) at 21:00

Read more about Genius: Aretha Watch National Geographic

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A genius in her time

Who gets called a genius and who doesn’t is a tricky topic, and 1 that speaks to who exactly gets to recognise and shine a spotlight on genius in the first place – and who they exclude. “We traditionally, as a world culture, tend to look at certain kinds of people and call them geniuses. And then we look at other kinds of people and go, ‘Hey, there's a natural talent, she’s great!’ You see what I'm saying?” Suzan-Lori comments.

In her subject, Aretha Franklin, Suzan-Lori has a performance artist and composer whose work sent a shock of excitement through the people around her, both professional musicians and audiences who loved her music. Her artistry gave voice to feelings and lit a light inside her listeners. But Suzan-Lori didn’t want to celebrate that genius in isolation.

“When National Geographic and Imagine decided to focus on Aretha Franklin: Genius, the question wasn't was she a genius, but how are we going to expand what the idea of genius means? Genius does mean ‘struck by God’. As a kid, I used to read the Oxford English Dictionary, you know, the big huge dictionary, and I think that might be the first meaning of the word. After that, there are many other meanings. And we're adding to those meanings and understandings of genius all the time,” explains Suzan-Lori. “Yes, Aretha Franklin was struck by God. But I think her genius flowered because she had such an amazing family. And she had such a wonderful family support group. So the notion that genius is only an isolated thing – we say genius is just something that happens in an ivory tower – we can redefine that and say genius is also something that could be nurtured by community, right? In Aretha Franklin's story, her genius was something that brought people together in Muscle Shoals in 1967, Alabama, a very racist part of the country. She brought white musicians together with her and they made hit-record soul music. I think it gives us an opportunity to celebrate Aretha Franklin's genius in the traditional sense and also expand our understanding of genius.”

Suzan-Lori had 8 hours to tell Aretha’s story and capture the nature of her genius – which is both a long time, and incredibly short time to sum up such a dazzling career and dramatic life. “We could have gotten lost in the minutia of her love affair with so-and-so you know. We could have gotten lost in all of that. That would have been interesting, but it wouldn't have shown her genius. She lived for over 70 years, and there were so many different avenues that we could have sort of gone down and gotten lost in. But it was easy, in a way, to keep my focus. I kept saying, ‘What is exceptional about her life in this time period?’ It's very exceptional that she jumps from Gospel to Pop. It's exceptional that she works with the musicians in Muscle Shoals. It's exceptional that she, instead of retiring at around 30 like a lot of folks might in that business, she keeps going. Those are my guiding lights. We get to see her in all her brilliance. We get to see how she took the difficulties of her life and turn them into gold. We get to see how she brought people together, we get to see how she worked in the studio. Her triumphs as an adult, her tragedies and difficulties as a child.”

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I had a little rag doll

Suzan-Lori and her team’s humanising attention to detail shines throughout Genius: Aretha. A case in point being the symbolic use of Little Ree’s (played by Shaian Jordan) doll. “I personally wanted Little Ree to have a doll. I have a copy I asked the production to give me, I took home with me. We have at least 2 of them. It’s very important. In episode 4, we see her mother (Barbara Franklin, played by Antonique Smith) making the doll. But all through this series, we see Aretha as a child. Literally a child holding onto that doll. It was a way to remind people that this young woman, this 12-year-old person, is a child. A lot of times, especially in this country, young black women who are 12 or whatnot, are not seen as children. And they are mistreated because they are not seen for who they are – a child. And by holding that doll, having that doll, it was a way to remind people that she is just a little girl. And when she goes off to hang out with the young men, it's very significant that she leaves her little doll on the bar, leaving the safety of her childhood and entering a dangerous part of her life. So it served a lot. It was beautiful, handmade (by Mark Ruffin of MRCO Studio). It's a gorgeous, gorgeous thing.”

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Genius at work

Suzan-Lori had her story, she had her plan for how it would be told, and she had a production team ready to produce Genius-level work behind the scenes. But throw in a talent like Cynthia Erivo, and she was swept off her feet. “I remember q of the first. It was the first day of shooting, it might have been the second. We were on the Muscle Shoals set, pretending we were in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. And Cynthia did a lot of pre-records for the song, but she also wanted to sing a lot of the songs live because you're in the moment, you're feeling it. And when she sang I Never Loved A Man live, I remember it went totally quiet. It's usually quiet when the director says action, right? But this was a kind of quiet that I'd never heard before. We were, all of us, me, the director Anthony Hemingway, everybody on the crew, everybody on crafts – it was a big set with a lot of people around – everybody was completely still and pointed in that direction and listening. And I thought, ‘Wow, we have such a great treasure in Cynthia Erivo’. We really got lucky in having her be Aretha. She also has that strength to her, which Aretha had.”

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A story for our time

Genius: Aretha isn’t just a historical portrait of an incredible talent, locked in amber. The obstacles that Aretha faces and the monsters that she fights are alive and thriving in the world today. “It's important that the new generation folks, who didn't grow up with her records, know that she continued. That she was a black American woman who kept going. And you know, you know, you know, how hard that is. As a black American woman in the entertainment business, it is hard, very hard, to keep going and keep believing in yourself when the world tells you otherwise. And then to be as brilliant as she was on top of it? It's very, very difficult,” insists Suzan-Lori. “Her activism is important, too. I want young artists coming up, young people coming up, to know that it's when the world tells you to shut up to say, ‘I don't think so! I'm going to speak out and say things if there are wrongs in the world. I'm going to lend my voice to the cause of justice, because that's part of my calling’.”

And Suzan-Lori wanted to show Aretha as a living, loving laughing human being, too. “Just to know that she loved jokes and laughter and fun. That she wasn't all serious all the time, or a diva as people call her, you know, this imperious person who didn't care about anybody else. She loved people. She loved her family.”

Against all odds

Genius: Aretha had a long, hard road getting to screen thanks to the disruption of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which happened at a critical time during filming. Suzan-Lori can look back on it and laugh now, but it was no picnic.

“We had 5 (episodes) in the can. We had done episodes 1 through 5. It was March the 13th (2020) and I got a call from Courteney (Monroe, President of National Geographic Global Television Networks). And she said, ‘SLP, we're going to shut down’. We were in a parking lot, I remember, getting ready for the day. And I fell on my knees and cried because we'd been working so hard. And she said, ‘Don't worry, don't worry, we're going to come back. We love the show so much. We're going to come back’.”

“It gave me an opportunity to rewrite some scripts, but nothing was a sure thing. At the end of September, we came back. We picked up where we left off with episode 6. And then we had 3 more shutdowns for safety. 3 more! We were tested every single day for COVID. Everyone on set was tested every single day. 1 person might get a positive test, and for safety's sake, we shut down the whole production. You lose a day or 2. The third time we shut down, we lost 5 days, because you have to take all the safety measures and protocols. Overnight, I had to cut 5 days out of the shooting schedule. And we had to wrap production in before Thanksgiving, so by the end of November, that was our drop-dead date. It was hard,” Suzan-Lori laughs ruefully, “but I had the best team in the world. I stayed up all night, I rewrote all the scripts, saying ‘Okay, if I have to cut this scene… well, it makes the story make sense (so, no). We had big party scenes, we had lavish ideas that were no longer COVID safe. So I said ‘Okay, it was a party scene where this happened and this happened. I have to cut it all down and make it a scene with only 3 people in it because maybe 1 of the actors had tested positive or what.’ And there was music. Yeah. And there were songs to sing. Yeah, and dance numbers and Vegas had to happen and all that kind of stuff. We pulled it off. We made it across the finish line,” Suzan-Lori smiles.

Watch Genius: Aretha S3 from Wednesday, 30 June on National Geographic (DStv channel 181) at 21:00

Genius: Aretha will be available on Catch Up on DStv, and the season will build to a Box Set, so you’ll be able to binge it in 1 go from Wednesday, 18 August. 

NB! National Geographic (DStv channel 181) is available on DStv Premium, Compact Plus, Compact and Family. To get DStv or to upgrade your package, Click here

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