The awe-inspiring life of Aretha Franklin, prominent activist, multi-hyphenate artist, and yes, the Queen Of Soul, has always been ripe for a cinematic or small-screen retelling. The late music icon began her career on the gospel circuit before moving into secular music, was crowned the Queen Of Soul by the 1960s, released acclaimed album after acclaimed album, maintained a friendship with Martin Luther King Jr., and thrilled sold-out crowds all over the world while never losing sight of the work of civil rights activists. She was a legend in her own time, and now her story is set to be told in both a feature film—the forthcoming Respect, starring Jennifer Hudson as Franklin—and an anthology series.
National Geographic’s Genius, which explored the lives of Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso in seasons one and two, is now devoting its third installment to the brilliance and passion of Aretha Franklin. The series, which premieres March 21, stars Widows and Harriet’s Cynthia Erivo as the “Lady Soul” singer, in a decades-spanning story. Showrunner Suzan-Lori Parks, who wrote much of the series, executive produces Genius: Aretha with veteran TV director (and 2010s MVP) Anthony Hemingway. The Underground helmer directs the season premiere, which begins with Franklin’s “coronation” in Chicago. At the 2020 Television Critics Association winter press tour (which now seems like a lifetime ago), The A.V. Club had the chance to speak with Hemingway about how long overdue this biopic series is, how he let Franklin’s genius guide him, and why the iconoclastic singer’s story resonates more than ever.
The A.V. Club: It’s taken a while for any biographical film about Aretha Franklin to make it out into the world, and in the next year or so, we’ll have both the Nat Geo series and the Liesl Tommy-directed Respect. Aside from some possible issues with getting the rights to music and researching with family, why do you think it’s taken so long?
Anthony Hemingway: I think it was just about timing and waiting until the timing was right. At least, my philosophy is that most things happen at the time that they should. Aretha’s story really is timeless, and as incredible as it was in effecting change when it was in its past present tense, it’s as relevant now. And I think we are in a time where we need more stories like this that really contribute to the change that’s necessary that we need and we’re yearning for, and the healing that is required for that change to happen. As transcendent as she was and transformative as her story was, she’s just reminding us of the things that are necessary and giving us a blueprint of how to go about it.
AVC: Speaking of blueprints, how did you approach the series? Did you try to frame each episode as a chapter from her life, or was the plan to do something more expansive?
AH: Well, the title of the series, Genius: Aretha, is what is giving us our mandate. It’s giving us our focus. And within that, we are basically, through the lens of Genius, telling Aretha’s story. We’re looking at the heart of an icon. And through that, we’re learning a beautiful human story. It’s really like we’re being gifted with seeing a little bit of ourselves in her story. And so, within our eight hours of storytelling, we’re focusing on those pivotal moments that highlighted her genius and the things that I feel stand out and make us recognize her and celebrate her talent.
AVC: What was the casting process like? How soon into preproduction did you guys know Cynthia Erivo was going to be your Aretha?
AH: It was early on, I think—well before anything started. I know Suzan-Lori Parks has been on this project since the start of 2019, and I think shortly after that, as she started to really dive into the narrative and figure out how to structure the series, Cynthia was approached at that point. SLP shares this story all the time, that Cynthia was who she envisioned to perform the role of Aretha—she was the only one. And as [Cynthia] is displaying that through her brilliant performances, she was the best person and the right one to do it.
AVC: You’ve worked on stories that are about historical or real-life figures in films like Red Tails and shows like American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson. How do those productions inform your work on Genius?
AH: I think the life experiences and opportunities that I’ve had with many projects sharpened my sensitivity toward approaching real human stories. They just remind me of just the level of detail and accuracy that’s needed in the work to achieve your vision. As these stories are all different and the lives are different, their stories are different, they necessitate and really require its own special look, tone, and feel. So they all are different and each one requires me to really start over and to tap into it’s own psychology. Whether it’s psychology of the character and the also the narrative and be inspired and figure out what my approach will be. So there is somewhat of a consistency, I think, in just the basics in terms of the things that are necessary, but what I need and the tools that I need to really execute its visual treatment and language, they all differ.
AVC: The series follows Aretha Franklin’s lifelong work as an activist, and how conscious she was of messaging in her music. In real life, she balanced her advocacy and artistry, but it often seemed like the press or the industry couldn’t hold both those facets of her in their heads at once. Have you ever felt that way about how journalists or the public receive your work, that they want you to be aware of the impact of your work sometimes before you’ve even put it out into the world?
AH: I don’t think you can ignore it. As with any work, one goes through the experience wanting it to serve a purpose. And so I think again, when I approach almost all of my projects, it’s just trying to find first that connection within myself. And then once I know it, I’m able to figure out how I can use myself and pour myself into it to be able to then share it with viewers at large. So I think the beauty within this Genius: Aretha story, in the time that we’re living right now, it’s so perfect because her story was one that displayed an ability to reach and to communicate and to transcend many paradigms within life. Whether it was culture, community, gender, or any of those dimensions, it represents inclusivity and that’s one of the really beautiful ways we can define her and highlight her as a genius because of her exceptional capabilities with which she lived her life and used her gifts to be able to affect others. She knew she had something and she took that and shared it. And that is something that we can learn more of, that we can better ourselves as we all really stand in this time of yearning for the change and the progress that we need, and the healing that we desire. This project and story really is a great blueprint and a contribution to others who align themselves in the same space and time.
AVC: One thing the show aims to do is explore just how accomplished a musician and song-writer Aretha Franklin was. She was an extremely gifted singer, but she did more than perform the songs in the studio or onstage. Yet for far too long, she wasn’t really asked about her craft. That seems to be something Black creatives still face, where they’re asked about politics or messaging instead of craft. Has that been part of your experience?
AH: I think many people are interested on how I came to be on my journey, and I’m happy to tell it. But it’s also important to understand and know the impact of it is a significant part of the process. For me, whatever story I am joining to tell and champion, there needs to be a purpose and a meaning with it. For me, I look to make sure that I don’t waste the opportunity to affect something within the storytelling, because I feel the opportunities that we have in storytelling should serve a purpose. And it should have meaning behind it. So, knowing and understanding the significance of my work isn’t something that I don’t need someone to tell me.
AVC: The terms “humanizing” or “humanization” come up a lot in discussions about TV and film lately, either to allow a window into the lives of people unlike ourselves, or to help us better understand people who became icons. What role do you think that plays in your own storytelling?
AH: For me, humanity is something that is limitless. It’s without borders or boundaries and lacks judgment. So for me, humanizing somebody only allows us to have an opportunity or the ability to see ourselves in that person. So there’s a connection, and that’s something that I feel we lack a lot of, which is learning from others—and not only from your own communities, your own culture. I think there’s education that we can all use to improve ourselves by taking the time to really learn from someone and listen and hear other stories. It is human for us to be able to find comfort in our own little corner of the world, but that definitely does a disservice from the ability to learn how to connect to other people. Inclusivity is necessary and is something that isn’t taken lightly. Again, because I always put myself in any situation first and think about just the awareness that’s necessary to be able to know how to approach any situation. I think that’s the learning that’s necessary in the discovery of life and just the human experience. Finding the humanity is finding the truth in someone, it’s finding the commonalities that we all share.