Showrunner, head writer and executive producer Suzan-Lori Parks shares what makes Aretha Franklin a 'Genius'
June 18, 2021
We know Aretha Franklin for her popular songs like “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” that soundtrack popular culture and important moments in history. Her voice echoes over the civil rights movement and even hums over today's movements. The sound of her voice reverberates off each record with strength — and with genius.
The third installment of National Geographic’s Genius series looks at the genius of the Queen of Soul through her artistry and activism. Showrunner, head writer, and executive producer Suzan-Lori Parks ensured that the series did just that by portraying how shy little Aretha became an influential artist.
“She created a body of work that was game-changing,” says Parks. “So many singers sing differently now because of the way she sang. She was also a brilliant pianist and she created material that is enduring long, long after her passing.”
Brain Grazer, one of the show's executive producers, invited Parks to be the showrunner and head writer of Aretha’s season in 2019, and she took the opportunity to craft an authentic representation of the iconic singer. Parks also wanted to take the opportunity to depict a Black woman as a genius, something that she believes some people still need to open their minds to.
“'Genius' was, back in the day, synonymous with 'white male',” she says.
Although Aretha Franklin couldn’t read music, Parks remarked that she still had “compositional skills in her head — in her bones.” Her desire, passion and phenomenal music skills are what highlight her genius; because music is about more than just being able to read the notes.
“To see that a black woman can also be a genius, it’s paradigm-shifting,” Parks says. “It opens your eyes. Even today in 2021, we need our eyes open and our heart opened.”
As portrayed in the season, Aretha was not only a talented musical artist, but also an activist. For Parks, Aretha's activism is also part of her genius. From her close work with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to her public support of Angela Davis, who was then seen as a controversial figure, Aretha Franklin pushed the envelope of what artists were capable of.
“She didn't just shut up and play or shut up and sing,” Parks says. “And those are genius moves because they really give us as artists today a blueprint on how we might interface with the political climate.”
Writing the series began in the fall of 2019. Parks came in with a general idea of what would happen in each episode, and then arrived in the writers room ready to collaborate and “put meat on the bones of the episodes.”
“These writers were totally all-in every day for every episode, whether it was their episode or not,” she says. The combined passion of all the writers created a script that depicted Aretha Franklin in all her complexities. It was also important to the authenticity of the story that the room be filled with predominantly Black and female writers, which they accomplished.
The writing process even bled into the filming at times. During a particular moment in episode two when Cynthia Erivo (who plays Aretha), felt something was off about a scene, Parks stepped aside to rewrite it in a way that moved out of the historical lens and into a more down to earth moment between two sisters. The on-the-spot changes were something Parks wasn't foreign to, because of her experience in theatre.
“It's gonna be better if they just talk like sisters; like women,” she says. “And I rewrote the scene to make a very beautiful scene about just two women who are sisters talking about their respective careers.”
It was also important to Parks that she pulled out these complex moments in Aretha Franklin’s life. She didn’t want the series to be two-dimensional, depicting a single emotion or aspect of Aretha. Not only does it give the musical artist justice, but it also amplifies an authentic narrative of a Black woman that is often short-changed in media.
“I think it's a revolutionary act, to write and tell the story of authentic Black characters and put them on the screen, whether big screen or a little screen, and invite them into our homes — invite them into our lives. It's a revolutionary act. We don't get to see it often enough.”
Written by: Steven VargasSteven Vargas is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles whose work focuses on arts, entertainment and activism. He is a current grad student at USC Annenberg pursuing an MA in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) and previously graduated from USC with a BA in Theatre and Journalism with a minor in Dance. He is a current member of the Equity Board, a new initiative at Annenberg Media dedicated to diversifying sourcing and promoting inclusive coverage across the publication. His short doc, “Dancing at Home,” earned first place in the LA Press Club’s “Life in the Time of the Coronavirus Contest" in May 2020. More recently, he co-directed "Two Paths: One Direction," an award-winning short documentary produced with students from the USC and Prairie View A&M University about their experiences of 2020. He produced work for ET Live, TheWrap, Dance Magazine, BuzzFeed News, and more. His work can be found here: https://www.vargassteven.com/