National Geographic’s scripted “Genius: Aretha” debuted Sunday, but the family of Aretha Franklin was quick to say they didn’t approve of the work even before the eight-part series started streaming.
The Franklin family claimed they were given not even a little respect — and largely left out of the production process for “Genius: Aretha.” The family added they believe that will lead to some major inaccuracies in the on-screen version of Aretha’s life, which sees her played by Oscar-nominated actress Cynthia Erivo.
“Genius: Aretha” spans eight episodes chronicling the Queen of Soul’s personal trials on the road to superstardom.
National Geographic didn’t immediately respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.
The producers told the Los Angeles Times, “the studio worked diligently to attain the endorsement of Aretha’s estate, which we are grateful to have. We worked with many people who knew Ms. Franklin — from Clive Davis to members of her family’s estate — to make sure we told her story in an honest and authentic way. This series is called ‘Genius’ — it is a tribute to Aretha’s genius — something we hope we can all celebrate.”
Two members of the Franklin family have spoken out, including Aretha’s son, Kecalf Franklin, who told Rolling Stone, “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 behavior 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… That’s usually the case when people say they don’t want to work with you.”
Kecalf told Rolling Stone he hasn’t seen any clips from the show, and that he and his family didn’t tune in when it released on National Geographic and Hulu on Sunday.
Prior to Kecalf speaking out, his daughter (Aretha’s granddaughter) Grace Franklin slammed the series in a TikTok video that shows her and other members of the Franklin family protesting with signs and chanting, “this movie has to go” outside the studios.
“As the immediate family, we feel 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,” Grace, who is 15 years old, said.
“During the process of writing, directing and filming this movie, we reached out to ‘Genius’ as a family on multiple occasions where we’ve been disrespected and told that 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 that there will be many inaccuracies about my grandmother’s life,” Grace said.
National Geographic began working on “Genius: Aretha” roughly two months after she died of cancer in 2018. Kecalf told Rolling Stone that at the time his cousin Sabrina Garrett-Owens was working to manage the estate, but resigned her post without reaching an agreement with National Geographic about the family participating in the series. Kecalf says future attempts by the family to reach out to National Geographic and the crew of “Genius” were stonewalled.
“We had our lawyers reach out to them and see if we could have some type of input and see the film and say what we like and what we didn’t like about it… And the report that we got back was saying that it was too late, production had already wrapped up and that they didn’t want to work with us. It was basically too late,” Kecalf said.
He added that National Geographic did send the family an NDA, but “weren’t giving us creative control or anything like that as well… it’s kind of like they just wanted us to check it out, but if we didn’t like it then, ‘Oh well. Sorry.'”
“Genius: Aretha” is airing as a four-night event series beginning Sunday, March 21, at 9/8c. The eight episodes of the season will air in pairs of two, with all available to stream on Hulu by Thursday, March 25.