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Aretha Franklin’s family protest about National Geographic’s Genius biopic

By Mark Savage

BBC music reporter

image copyrightNational Geographic

image captionBritish actress Cynthia Erivo plays Aretha Franklin in the National Geographic series

Aretha Franklin’s family have denounced a new dramatisation of the singer’s life, saying they were not consulted and “do not support” the show.

Genius: Aretha stars British Oscar nominee Cynthia Erivo, and is being shown on National Geographic in the US.

The channel said it had permission to make the “tribute to Aretha’s genius”.

But the family say they were cut out of the production process and asked fans to boycott it, saying: “This is about common, decent respect for our family.”

The Queen of Soul’s granddaughter Grace posted a video of her protesting against the show alongside her parents, siblings and friends last week.

In a TikTok clip, they can be seen chanting: “This movie has to go! This movie has to go!”

“As the immediate family, we feel that it’s important to be involved with any biopic of my grandma’s life, as it’s hard to get any accurate depiction of anyone’s life without speaking to the ones closest to them,” she explained.

“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.”

image copyrightGetty Images

image captionAretha Franklin’s music moved millions of people and sound-tracked social change over five decades

Aretha Franklin was one of the biggest stars of pop, soul, gospel and R&B, who scored more than 100 hit singles on the US Billboard charts – from Chain of Fools and Respect to Think and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.

Her extraordinary success was matched by an equally dramatic personal life, in which she survived abusive relationships and worked with civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King.

A separate big-screen biopic of her life was already in production when she died of pancreatic cancer in 2018. Starring Jennifer Hudson, it has been produced with input from the family and is due to hit screens this summer.

image copyrightGetty Images

image captionJennifer Hudson was hand-picked by Aretha to star in the forthcoming movie Respect

National Geographic’s eight-part series was announced in 2019, and the star’s family said their efforts to contact the producers were rebuffed.

“What we’ve found out in the past is that usually when people don’t want to work with you, that is a prelude to some type of unprofessional behaviour or a prelude to some type of untruth or slander, so we’re not quite sure where we’re going to see in this series,” Franklin’s son Kecalf told Rolling Stone magazine.

The family admitted they had not seen the programme, which was largely written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. They did not intend to watch the first two episodes when they were broadcast on Sunday, Kecalf added.

Responding to the Franklin family’s criticism, National Geographic noted that it had permission to make the film from Franklin’s estate, which is currently a separate entity amid disputes over the singer’s will.

However, that permission did not extend to licensing her biggest songs, including Respect and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.

The channel added that the intention of the Genius series, which has previously depicted the lives of Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, was a “tribute to Aretha’s genius – something we hope we can all celebrate”.

“We received the message from the family, we hear them and acknowledge their concern for Ms Franklin’s legacy,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

“We think we have a shared goal here – to honour and celebrate the life and legacy of Aretha Franklin. 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.”

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Early reviews for the series have been mixed.

Critics praised Erivo’s performances which, according to The Guardian, “brings out the swaggering sensuality of Franklin’s artistry”, but they were less convinced by the “overfamiliar biopic beats” (The New York Times) and a narrative that “tangles the characters and storytelling in frustrating knots” (Variety).

“As an extended biopic, Aretha is serviceable and fairly thorough,” concluded The Chicago Sun-Times. “As a showcase for one of the great stars of our time playing one of the greatest stars of all time, it’s a hit.”

Plans to show the mini-series in the UK have yet to be announced.

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