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‘This is a story that should not be a movie’: 5 things to expect from Aretha Franklin miniseries

Ramon Ramirez
Special to the American-Statesman

You may be scrolling through your streaming library this month and inclined to glaze over the Aretha Franklin TV drama. But this isn’t some VH1 re-telling of the Temptations' downfall you’ve seen before. Bloated biopics that lionize difficult male stars like James Brown can be an eyeroll — "Aretha" is at least going there.

Landing on Hulu via National Geographic’s “Genius” series in March, "Aretha" unfurls the Queen of Soul’s out-sized legacy with an all-star list of collaborators. Broadway and movie star Cynthia Erivo ("The Color Purple," "Harriet" ) has the impossible task of portraying Franklin, and Emmy-winner Courtney B. Vance stars as Franklin’s father.

On March 16 at South by Southwest, Erivo, showrunner Suzan-Lori Parks, costume designer Jennifer Bryan, director Anthony Hemingway and producer Brian Grazer discussed the drama’s ambitions with radio host Sway. Here are five things to know about "Aretha," which premieres March 21 on National Geographic and also is available the next day on Hulu.

Oscar nominee Cynthia Erivo plays Aretha Franklin with Malcolm Barrett as her husband/manager Ted White in "Genius: Aretha."

Grazer didn’t want this to be a movie.

“The day that Aretha died I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is it,’” Grazer told Sway.

National Geographic’s first two seasons tracked Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso. It was time for a more modern genius. And Grazer wanted to go long: “It’s eight hours and not two hours. She lived in a time that was really very culturally complicated. This is a story that should not be a movie,” Grazer said. “To navigate her way through this intense obstacle course of people, civil rights issues… It just seems like that kind of genius had to be told.”

Parks elaborated on the whole genius thing, saying they’ve produced a story about “Black American female genius” that is “so on point and on time for what we’re going through” because it’s a genius that is “inclusive,” “outside the box,” and the type to “make a way where there is no way.”

Aretha Franklin in a scene from the film, "Amazing Grace," which was released in 2019. A new miniseries delves into the life and music of the Queen of Soul.

The singing is the real deal.

“I akin it to almost my wedding day… and the moment I said ‘I do,’” Hemingway said of star Erivo singing Franklin’s classic “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” on-set as filming began. “That’s how mesmerizing it was.”

"Aretha" features original vocals. During the panel, Erivo showed off her a capella pipes after saying that her whole goal was to make Franklin, who tops Rolling Stone's list of the best singers of all time, “pleased.”

The miniseries is built around Franklin’s best songs, many of which were quietly protest anthems.

“She tapped into different layers” of sociopolitical context, Sway said of Franklin’s music.

The miniseries made a point to build around songs with depth that in the ‘60s and ‘70s doubled as winks to the “Black experience,” as Parks said. For example, a song like “Call Me” spoke to the relief that came with checking in on the road among people of color who were traveling across an often hostile and dangerous America, however subtly.

“We would dance the funky chicken with our fists in the air listening to ‘Rock Steady,’” Parks said of the dance song her aunts told her was “secretly a protest.”

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The show aims to “Put respect on Aretha’s name, not to shame her.”

Parks noted that biopics often stick to palatable conflicts, but Aretha is a story about “telling the truth,” from the church to gender dynamics to race to losing innocence. “We didn’t sugarcoat or candy coat anything,” Parks said. “Family conflict, studio conflict, getting men to believe in her vision.” That includes the sensitive subject of Franklin becoming pregnant at age 12, one the panelists said they approached with a big heart.

For the cast and crew, it’s a personal story.

The story of Aretha Franklin is a story about finding your voice when the deck is stacked against you. As Erivo said, when you’re a woman in the arts, “It takes time for people to believe that you know what you’re talking about.”

Parks said "Aretha" is a story about people who struggled to simply “live your life as an American,” drawing inspiration from managing racist abuse while driving across the South with her father for a scene when Franklin bravely traveled to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in 1967 to record.

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Even Sway spoke about sampling Franklin’s music in his early days as a hip-hop artist on 1991’s "Concrete Jungle," and what a personal accomplishment it was for him to have the Franklin sample cleared by the record label.

Costume designer Jennifer Bryan said R&B music like Franklin’s soundtracked her “childhood as a young woman coming to this country,” which she absorbed like during the “sponged time of my brain.”

In other words, Franklin’s work was a compass that proved central to the development of the panelists.

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