How a TV event pays respect to the ‘Genius’ of Aretha Franklin

Before the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, died in 2018, she had already anointed who should immortalize her on screen: Jennifer Hudson, who will star in the biopic “Respect,” due in August.

But it’s Tony-winning actress Cynthia Erivo (“The Color Purple”) who first brings Franklin back to life in “Genius: Aretha,” the third installment in the National Geographic anthology series following previous seasons on Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso. The eight-episode series, which premiered Sunday, will air through Wednesday. (There are two episodes per night, at 9 p.m. and 10 p.m., which are available on Hulu the next day.)

And let’s face it: There can never be enough propers for Aretha.

It’s a tall task for anyone to play such a towering figure — even Erivo, who already earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for portraying another African American legend, Harriet Tubman, in 2019’s “Harriet.” And it takes her a little while to settle into the role — or, let’s say, it takes a little while for you to accept her in the role.

That’s because this is not a transformation. Erivo doesn’t really look like Franklin. She doesn’t really talk like Franklin. And — as inspired as some of her vocals are — she doesn’t really sing like Franklin. I mean, how could she?

genius aretha franklin
C.L. Franklin (Courtney B. Vance) with his daughter Aretha (Erivo) as she records at The New Temple Missionary Baptist Church.
National Geographic/Richard DuCr

Erivo’s performance is more of an interpretation than mimicry, so you never once feel as if you’re watching Aretha Franklin. But once you let go of that, there’s enough of her essence to capture moments of her genius.

There’s the moment in the second episode when she meets Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler (David Cross) — producer of such golden-era albums as 1968’s Lady Soul”  — and, after asking to be called “Ms. Franklin” instead of “Aretha,” proceeds to take him all the way to church with the gospel hymn “How I Got Over.”

genius aretha franklin
Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin with Malcolm Barrett as Ted White.
National Geographic/Richard DuCr

Then there’s a moment in Episode 5 when — as the now-coronated Queen ruling a studio session — she notices the difference in sound that her piano makes after an empty pizza box is removed from its top and demands that the would-be trash be put back.

It’s moments like those that give real insight into how — after struggling to find her sound at the beginning of her recording career — Aretha became Aretha.

But “Genius: Aretha” also goes deep into Franklin’s roots as a child prodigy on the gospel-caravan circuit with her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin (Courtney B. Vance). Flashbacks of her innate talent blossoming despite a tough upbringing — she had two kids by the age of 14 – are interspersed throughout, with a winning Shaian Jordan playing young Aretha.

But there’s a little too much time spent on Franklin’s childhood. The scandalous split of her parents because of her philandering father — leaving Franklin and her siblings to grow up without their mom — is overdone in soapy style. Still, it helps explain why she grew up to have her own problems with men — including her father.

There are some do-right men in Franklin’s life, though: Ken Cunningham — played by rapper T.I., disappearing under his Afro wig and superfly fashion — is a lover who tends to both Franklin’s heart and her black consciousness. 

genius aretha franklin
Aretha Franklin (Cynthia Erivo) makes a statement in support of the civil rights movement.
National Geographic/Richard DuCr

Meanwhile, the Rev. James Cleveland — in an uncanny portrayal by Omar J. Dorsey (“Queen Sugar”)  — goes from childhood confidante to her trusted collaborator when Franklin records perhaps her greatest achievement: her 1972 “Amazing Grace” live gospel album.

When Erivo powers through the title tune as a genuinely moved Dorsey plays through tears at the piano, you just know that the holy spirit was on set that day.