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While National Geographic’s latest iteration of its Genius series centers on the life of Aretha Franklin, the four-night event also tells the stories of many important figures in the singer’s inner circle, including that of her father C.L. Franklin.

In demonstrating the impact of the Baptist minister who was known as the man with the “Million-Dollar Voice,” the narrative doesn’t shy away from the somewhat tarnished legacy he left behind as a husband, father, and man of the cloth. It’s for that reason viewers will find C.L. both hard to understand and difficult to watch on screen — a fact of which Courtney B. Vance, who plays the pastor, is keenly aware.

“You gotta go back to the ’40s and the ’50s and ’60s,” Vance tells ESSENCE. “You gotta put yourself back there to understand the groups that got the worst of the worst from Black men and white men were Black women and Black children and they suffered.”

Adding his personal view of C.L. now that he’s stepped into his shoes, Vance says, “The man was absolutely crazy. But he had to be that to get out of where he came from. His father said the pulpit or the plow, choose right now, and he chose the pulpit and at 16 or 17 his father kicked him out the house. There was no place for folks at that time to grow up.”

With each episode, viewers will see the consequences of that reality in greater depth as C.L. imparts various forms of abuse on the women around him. Most shocking to observe, however, is the fact that those actions had little-to-no effect on C.L. in real-time.

“Anybody who became somebody was somebody because it was so messy [in those days,” Vance says of C.L. not being held accountable for his bad behavior. “The whole system was against Black people so if you became somebody at that time, Black folks just went ‘Okay…he’s somebody. Leave him alone.'”

Check out our full interview with Courtney B. Vance in the video above. Genius: Aretha debuts on National Geographic at 9 pm ET tonight.

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