Last night ESSENCE co-hosted a special virtual screening of the upcoming National Geographic series Genius: Aretha starring Cynthia Erivo as the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin. As part of the event, attendees got an early look at the first episode of the anthology and were treated to a pre-show performance by c-Live of the Clive Davis Institute at Tisch School of the Arts/NYU and the Detroit Youth All-Star Choir. There was also a surprise appearance by Antonique Smith who plays Franklin’s mother. Following the exclusive screening, Erivo gave a resounding performance from the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, not unlike those she delivers throughout the series.
We’re first introduced to Aretha’s story through a series of flashbacks of her childhood, starting with an incident in which young Aretha, (played by Shaian Jordan) and her father C.L. Franklin (Courtney B. Vance) have a run-in with two white men when their car gets stuck on the side of the road. “Little ‘Re,” as her father calls her, is seen curled up in a corner of the backseat with her doll while her father peacefully rectifies the situation. It’s the first time we hear the future soul singer’s soothing vocals which pushes the story plot along just as Franklin’s voice moved audiences in real life.
In addition to delving into Franklin’s relationship with her father, the show also explores the Detroit native’s dynamic with her talented and witty sisters Erma and Carolyn (Patrice Covington and Rebecca Naomi Jones) and first-husband Theodore “Ted” White (Malcom Barrett). We’re also introduced to Ruth Bowen, the first Black female booking agent and one of the earliest influences on Franklin’s career.
The ensemble cast not only adds flavor on screen but speaks to the many factors that affected how Franklin navigated life, from her unhealthy marriage, to her minister father’s famous infidelities to the realities of being a Black girl growing up in the 1940s. Kim Coleman’s assembling of these actors perfectly carried out Tony and Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Park’s screenplay which aptly gets to the truth of who Ms. Franklin was.
Last night’s performances were just a taste of what audiences will experience when the four-night event kicks off on Sunday, March 21 at 9/8 PM CT. The National Geographic Channel will air two episodes each night with all eight episodes of the series being available for streaming on Hulu by Thursday, March 25, Aretha Franklin’s birthday.