Hail the Queen of Soul! ‘Genius’ Presents the Life and Career of Aretha Franklin

National Geographic/Richard DuCree

After exploring Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso in its first two installments, National Geographic’s Genius series presents the transcendent life, career and music of Aretha Franklin over a four-night, eight-episode third season beginning Sunday, March 21, at 9pm ET/PT.

Franklin sang gospel songs in her father’s church in Detroit in the 1950s, then blossomed into a pop singer in the 1960s. By the end of the decade, she was crowned “Queen of Soul,” and she would go on to leave an indelible legacy as performer, pioneer, activist and icon.

“Aretha had such an amazing and long career. She lived a beautiful life that was full of peaks and valleys that led to her incredible success,” says Aretha showrunner Suzan-Lori Parks. “So many things that she went through — the highs, the lows — would have crushed a lesser being, in my opinion.”

Aretha was larger than life, and it requires an extraordinary talent to portray her. The honor of that challenge goes to Cynthia Erivo, a Grammy, Emmy and Tony winner and Oscar nominee (Harriet).

“I love Aretha. I’ve been listening to her since I was little. I learned to sing and tell stories through song, by listening to her,” Erivo says. “I approached playing Aretha by listening to her music, paying attention to her voice, and honing in on how she communicates with her music. … I’ve also been poring over her interviews to learn her cadence and the ways in which she spoke. I’ve really enjoyed learning about Aretha as a person as well as her music. I allowed myself to be a geek about someone and something I really love — that’s how I’ve been getting to know her.”

“Just Cynthia being such a talented artist, a talented actor, it’s been nothing but fun to watch her really embody this character,” says executive producer and director Anthony Hemingway. “And if you close your eyes and just listen to her sing, you are questioning, ‘Is Aretha in that booth, or is it Cynthia Erivo?’ But that’s the beauty in what I love seeing a real actor do. They step out of themselves and really step into the shoes of the character that they are portraying. And Cynthia is doing that.”

Guiding Aretha’s genius was her father, the reverend and civil rights activist C.L. Franklin. His “Million Dollar Voice” could be heard delivering powerful sermons on the radio, on recordings and on national ministry tours. He nurtured Aretha’s talent through what was sometimes a difficult home life and the discrimination she faced as a young Black woman.

Emmy winner Courtney B. Vance (The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story), who plays Aretha’s father, believes the family was able to overcome by trusting in that powerful force that buoyed them: the music. “The thing that’s constant is the music,” Vance says. “The church music, the fact that during this time period folks from the church were crossing over and going into the pop world and how difficult and fraught with dangers that was for folk. And how ‘Re Re’ had to navigate all of that, and then Papa had to navigate that with her. There were no rules back then, especially for folks of color. There was no rule. We were operating the best we could. And based on that, this young lady — with all that she had against us, against her, against the odds — she rose to become the genius that she was.”

The Queen’s Subjects

It’s Aretha’s world. These people are just living in it:

Ted White (Malcolm Barrett) Aretha’s first husband and business manager.

Jerry Wexler (David Cross) Legendary music producer for Atlantic Records, with whom Aretha achieved her greatest success.

Ken Cunningham (Tip “T.I.” Harris) Aretha’s road manager and father of her youngest son.

Erma and Carolyn Franklin (Patrice Covington, Rebecca Naomi Jones) Aretha’s sisters and frequent backup singers.

Cecil Franklin (Steven Norfleet) Aretha’s older brother who succeeded White as her manager.

Rachel Franklin (Pauletta Washington) Aretha’s nurturing and loving paternal grandmother.

James Cleveland (Omar J. Dorsey) The famous gospel singer and composer who collaborated with Aretha on her Amazing Grace album.

King Curtis (Marque Richardson) Saxophonist who performed on Aretha’s “Respect.”

Ruth Bowen (Kimberly Hébert Gregory) The first Black female talent agent.

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Some things I like (in no particular order): Sports, Star Wars, LEGO, beer, 'The Simpsons' Seasons 1-13, my family and the few friends who are not embarrassed to be seen with me. Why yes, I am very interested in how much you like 'Alaskan Bush People.' #LynxForLife