The incredible life story of Aretha Franklin is finally being told on TV screen, thanks to National Geographic's limited series Genius: Aretha, but the docu-series isn't without its controversies. Franklin's estate and family are speaking out against the musical project, imploring true fans of the Queen of Soul not to watch the series because it doesn't have their blessing.
Genius sees singer and actress Cynthia Erivo (Harriet, Widows) taking up the role of the late great icon, chronicling Franklin's life from her early days as a little girl in New Bethel Baptist Church to her meteoric rise to become a record-breaking musical legend. Unfortunately, the production is already being met with backlash from Franklin's own family, who claim that the producers of Genius intentionally denied them the opportunity to consult on its storyline.
Production for the mini-series began shortly after Franklin's death in 2018, and her estate was still in talks with the producers about how involved they would be in the project. However, at some point, communication between the two parties abruptly ended.
"[The family] had our lawyers reach out to them and see if we could have some type of input and see the film and say what we like and what we didn’t like about it,” Aretha's son Kecalf Franklin explained in conversation with Rolling Stone. “And the report that we got back was saying that it was too late, production had already wrapped up and that they didn’t want to work with us. It was basically too late."
According to Kecalf, the production team of Genius didn't consult them on anything related to the series, but the minds behind the project insist otherwise. A representative from NatGeo rebuffed the allegations, claiming that showrunner Suzan-Lori Parks and others were in contact with many people close to Aretha, including members of her family's estate and frequent collaborator (and Genius executive producer) Clive Davis.
“We think we have a shared goal here – to honour and celebrate the life and legacy of Aretha Franklin," said the rep in a statement. "We can tell you that everyone who worked on Genius: Aretha approached telling her story with the intention to respect Ms. Franklin in every aspect of the series and in every decision we made. The studio worked diligently to attain the endorsement of Aretha’s estate, which we are grateful to have.”
The first episode of the limited series has already dropped on NatGeo and Disney+ and will continue over the next three weeks, but Aretha's family is hoping that fans will respect their wishes and honour her legacy by not engaging with the project. After all, there's another biopic about the singer on the way starring Jennifer Hudson — and that one had Aretha's blessing.
“This is about common, decent respect for our family,” Kecalf iterated to Rolling Stone. “If I was to do a movie on your family, I would try and speak with you, your sons, daughters, grandchildren and people like that. And we just never felt like we got a shot to speak to them freely from my heart about our family member.”