Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

How Suzan-Lori Parks is showing respect for Aretha Franklin’s Genius

Cynthia Erivo in Genius: Aretha Franklin
Cynthia Erivo
Photo: National Geographic/Richard DuCree

Here’s what’s happening in the world of television for Sunday, March 21. All times are Eastern.

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Top pick

Genius: Aretha (National Geographic, 9 p.m., series premiere, back-to-back episodes): The third season of Genius is more than just a link in NatGeo’s chain. It’s about Aretha.

On the heels of National Geographic’s Genius: Einstein and Genius: Picasso comes Genius: Aretha, an eight-episode look at the life and legendary musical brilliance of the Queen Of Soul. Prior to the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, The A.V. Club spoke with showrunner Suzan-Lori Parks—one of the great American playwrights, and a bit of a multi-hyphenate genius herself—about bringing Franklin’s life to the screen, and why genius is both a noun and a verb.


The A.V. Club: What made Aretha Franklin a genius?

Suzan-Lori Parks: She creates something that transcends time, that pulls from the past and rockets itself into the future. And she’s radically inclusive in practicing her genius, because genius is not just a noun, it’s a verb. It’s something that is also inclusive. Something that lights the genius in each of us. She’s the first person of color [to be the subject of] this series. She’s the first American in the Genius series, she’s the first woman in the Genius series, she’s the first mom in the Genius series. I think that’s how her genius operates. On all cylinders.

AVC: Ms. Franklin’s father was an enormously influential figure in her life. Having delved into her story as a writer, what do you think the core of that relationship is?

SLP: Aretha’s father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, was a powerhouse. He was an inspirational figure. He was one of the mentors of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In ’63, he had something called, I think it was the Detroit Walk To Freedom. It was [at that time] the largest civil rights march of its kind ever. And then nobody hears about it because a month or so later we had the March On Washington.

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Aretha grew up in the presence of that power. She learned so much about being a public figure from him… Her father also wasn’t just a saintly religious figure. He was a human being. He was a complicated dude. He loved Sunday morning and he loved Saturday night. We have a good relationship with the Aretha Franklin Estate, and we hear over and over how much she loved her father. Doesn’t mean their relationship was perfect, but there was a strong, strong bond between them.

AVC: How did you approach scenes where Aretha is performing? When we’re watching a performer interpret another performer’s performance?

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SLP: Well, Cynthia Erivo is a brilliant, brilliant performer. She’s also a joy to work with and very disciplined as an artist. Cynthia is a devotee of Aretha Franklin and has been [for years]. She has a lot of love and admiration for her. She’s not merely mimicking; it’s not like that. She is channeling the spirit of the queen.

AVC: Was she always attached to the project?

SLP: Cynthia Erivo was the only one I ever wanted to play the part. I had a dinner with her and she came in the restaurant and they had some music playing on the sound system, and when she crossed over to my table, as she sat down, Aretha Franklin’s “Call Me” came on the sound system.

AVC: Chills.

SLP: And I said, “Sister, you’ve been called.” And she said, “Yeah, I hear it.”

A.V. Club: What’s your favorite Aretha Franklin song?

SLP: Well, now “Call Me” is not just a song to me. It’s attached to a magical moment. But I love “Rock Steady.” I love “Chain Of Fools,” “Dr. Feelgood”… so many great songs.

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AVC: Is it freeing or daunting to be interpreting the life of a public figure who’s not just a public figure, but an icon?

SLP: This is my thing. I’m called to these great challenges, these big jobs. It’s a burden, but the burden is light somehow, because in my experience, when I work on the story of an icon, of a known person, I am assisted very much so by their spirit. I lean very much on their spirit for guidance and assistance. Like that moment when Cynthia comes in and “Call Me” plays? I mean, I am leaning on the spirit of Aretha Franklin there. I’m saying, “Ms. Franklin, could you help me here? Could you help me have this conversation with Ms. Cynthia Erivo?” And there she was. And I very much believe that.

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AVC: There’s an inherent musicality to everything you write, but each project has its own sound. How do you go about finding that musicality for each project?

SLP: I listen. It sounds like a simple answer, but it’s not a simple task to listen. You have to get the clutter out of the way and open yourself up. And that’s one of the things I admire about Aretha Franklin. She listened. She didn’t just do the same thing over and over and over. She moved from gospel to pop, she moved forward in pop music, she embraced disco, she embraced opera. She was constantly opening herself up to new styles. As an artist, I take a lot of inspiration from that. I just keep my ears open. I stay awake.

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Regular coverage

American Gods (Starz, 8 p.m.): season-three finale
The Simpsons (Fox, 8 p.m.): drop-in coverage of 700th episode
Shameless (Showtime, 9 p.m.)
The Walking Dead (AMC, 9 p.m.)

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Wild card

Q: Into The Storm (HBO, 9 p.m., series premiere, back-to-back episodes): “QAnon has infiltrated the mainstream. We can no longer afford to ignore Q, and that makes Q: Into The Storm disturbingly relevant. The documentary begins with footage from the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and climaxes with scenes from the ‘Save America Rally’ that preceded the siege—quite literally the ‘calm before the storm,’ to use a popular Q slogan. Jim Watkins, who owns the 8chan website that ‘Q’ calls home, at one point compares the pro-Trump rally to the 1963 March On Washington. The comparison is twisted and lacking even minimal self-awareness, much like QAnon itself.” Read the rest of Stephen Robinson’s review of this vital docuseries.

Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves TV, bourbon, and overanalyzing social interactions. Please buy her book, How TV Can Make You Smarter (Chronicle, 2020). It’s short!