In the wake of the 2018 death of R&B singer and "Queen of Soul" Aretha Franklin, several biopics about her legendary career went into production. Aretha lived an epic life, being both the first woman ever to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and an activist who went on tour with Martin Luther King, Jr. at age 16. National Geographic's Genius: Aretha, the first of the projects to be released, has received praise from critics for Cynthia Erivo's portrayal of Aretha. But Aretha's family aren't happy with the four-part series. Her children and grandchildren have condemned the series in recent interviews, calling for boycotts of Genius: Aretha. That said, they've approved of another project, the film Respect coming out later this year, which stars Jennifer Hudson as Aretha.
So why has Aretha's family approved one project and bashed another? They say it's all about honoring the notoriously private superstar's wishes.
Aretha's family says they weren't consulted about Genius: Aretha.
Aretha's family claims that the team behind Genius: Aretha did not involve them in production. Aretha's granddaughter, Grace Franklin, posted a TikTok on March 13, showing herself protesting the series alongside her parents, siblings and friends, chanting, "This movie has to go! This movie has to go!" Later in the clip, she explains that her family feels they should be involved with any biopic of Aretha's life to ensure that it shows an accurate depiction of the singer.
"During the process of writing, directing, and filming this movie, we've reached out to Genius as a family on multiple occasions where we have been disrespected and told we will not be worked with. As the immediate family—emphasis on immediate—we do not support this film and we ask that you also do not support this film, as we feel extremely disrespected, and we feel there will be many inaccuracies about my grandmother's life," Grace said.
National Geographic has said that it had permission to make the film from Aretha's estate, which is a separate entity. In a statement, it said: "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 biopic's writer, Suzan-Lori Parks, said in an interview with the Detroit Free Press: “As the showrunner of Genius: Aretha, I can tell you that every single day (and twice on Sunday!)—through COVID, social unrest, and every other challenge we faced—our intention was to respect Ms. Franklin in every aspect of our show and in every decision we made.”
The family will not watch Genius: Aretha.
The family say they have not watched Genius, and have no plans to. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Grace's father and Aretha's son, Kecalf Franklin, gave more details on the family's communication with the Genius team. He noted that he was unaware of any song licensing deals between the production and Aretha's estate.
“This is about common, decent respect for our family. 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," he said.
Respect, with Jennifer Hudson, was made with Aretha's input.
While Genius: Aretha was announced in February 2019, months after the singer's death, Aretha herself consulted on the production of Respect up until she died. According to Variety, the film had been in the works for decades, and happened "at her behest and under her complete control."
Aretha also personally chose Jennifer Hudson to play her, after having her eye on the Oscar winner for years. Hudson told Entertainment Weekly that she met Aretha when she was 25 and had just won her Academy Award for playing Effie White in the musical Dreamgirls.
“We met in New York, and one of the first things she said to me was ‘You’re gonna win another Oscar for playing me, right?’ Imagine Aretha Franklin looking you in the face and saying that,” Hudson said. “I was like, ‘Eh, uh, eh…I can try.’”
In the Rolling Stone interview, Kedren Franklin said that the family was having an easier time working with the Respect team. “We’re actually working with MGM and…they’re trying to negotiate and work with us on their movie. I really can’t speak on that one because we’re in negotiations still with them,” he said.
Aretha was famously private about her likeness.
Aretha's reported supervision of Respect makes sense, considering the legal battle she waged against the concert film Amazing Grace. The film was shot in 1972 at a Baptist church in Watts, South Los Angeles, while Aretha was recording her album of the same name, which became the most successful gospel album ever. It was shelved for decades until producer Alan Elliot completed the film in the mid-2000s—but when the trailer came out in 2010, Aretha sued to stop its release, calling it an unlicensed use of her likeness. After years of failed negotiations up until her death, her family came to an arrangement to release the film, and it came out on April 5, 2019 to wide acclaim.
Would Aretha have fought to shut down Genius: Aretha if she was still alive? There's no way to know, but it's worth considering before watching. Either way, both Genius and Respect will be judged by their interpretation of Aretha's legacy and wishes.