Genius: Aretha: Suzan-Lori Parks on Telling Aretha Franklin’s Story

The resume of writer and musician Suzan-Lori Parks is sincerely impressive, with high points including becoming the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and being a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant recipient. The latter accolade was perhaps foreshadowing for her latest project: the eight-episode limited series Genius: Aretha, the latest entry in the NatGeo franchise paying tribute to humanity’s greatest minds and their complex lives.

In this one-on-one phone interview with Collider, Parks talked about the two-year journey to bring to life the one and only Aretha Franklin (played by a pitch-perfect Cynthia Erivo as an adult and Shaian Jordan as a child). This included how the show was affected by the pandemic, how they approached incorporating Franklin’s greatest hits as well as her lesser-known works, what kinds of research Parks looked to in order to shape her portrait of the Queen of Soul, and, after writing this as well as the script for The People vs. Billie Holiday, what advice she would give someone looking to make a biopic. She also explains how one of her earliest film projects came to be — the 1996 Spike Lee film Girl 6.

COLLIDER: So talk me through a little bit about how you got brought on originally.

SUZAN-LORI PARKS: Sure. It was 2019 in January. I was at the Sundance Film Festival. We were opening the festival with Native Son. [Parks wrote the adaptation of Richard Wright’s play.] My agent said that Brian Grazer wanted to give me a call and I’m like, “Wow, okay. I’ll take the call.” And he said, he basically said, “We’re doing Genius: Aretha. Do you want to come on as showrunner?” I said, “Sure!” It was absolutely thrilling.

That was my on-ramp to the project. I went on and assembled the team from there. They were interested in Cynthia Erivo and I met her and thought she’d be perfect and kept assembling the team from there.

Wonderful. Of course, this story is a very different story from the other Genius series, just by virtue of the fact that Aretha is a very different person than Pablo Picasso or Albert Einstein. But at the same time, there is the brand of Genius attached to it. So for you, did you come at it like it was a completely fresh project? Or do you come at it thinking about the previous seasons?

PARKS: I came at it thinking, okay, so as with Einstein and Picasso, we are going to see the demonstrations of Aretha Franklin’s genius — whatever those moments are from her life. I’m going to do a huge ginormous volume of research. I [now] have a big bookshelf, floor to ceiling in my apartment that’s crammed with Aretha Franklin materials: Books, magazines, CDs, vinyl. I was buying scratched vinyl because I just loved the cover art. Articles, tons and tons of articles. I would talk with people who knew her and get their take on what she was like.

It’s still in the Genius family. So there were things that we wanted to do. We wanted to talk about Aretha Franklin’s genius, so we’re not going to stray from that because that’s kind of what the wonderful story is asking of us — we know what it is asking by the title. I think that [the previous shows] worked so wonderfully in getting to know the person behind the stuff. Here we get to know Aretha, the story of Aretha, and a lot of people don’t know her story hardly at all. So it was a real great opportunity to help people get to know her story and help people get to see her genius.

So I’m not hugely knowledgeable about music, which means that one of my favorite things about biopics like this is, inevitably, there’ll be at least a couple of times where there’ll be a song and I’ll realize that “I had no idea they recorded that.” That was definitely the case here with “Son of a Preacher Man.”

PARKS: Oh yeah. “Son of a Preacher Man,” “Border Song,” there’s so many. Aretha Franklin did a lot of covers — you do a deep dive past the hits, which are awesome, and you listen to some of the other songs, like “Save Me,” which is a beautiful song that a lot of people don’t know. “Border Song” is a song that people might know from Elton John, the original artist, but they don’t know her version. There’s a lot of cool discoveries in this series.

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Image via NatGeo

In terms of incorporating her music, did you basically have a list of a hundred songs, ad then you trimmed that down to the ones you knew you could fit in?

PARKS: Totally. To be honest, it was also the ones we could get the rights to. We couldn’t get the rights to all the songs. So it was a list of all her songs, lots and lots and lots. Then the ones we can get the rights to, and then the ones we could fit it. We fit them in all kinds of ways: Some we have are sung by Cynthia Erivo. Some are used as underscoring. We make room for them in many different ways. But also we let the story lead. You know? We’re not jumping from song to song, to song, to song. We’re jumping from story beat to story beat to story beat or genius moment to genius moment to genius moment. We’re letting her story lead the way.

It seems like there’s an advantage to telling a story about Aretha, as opposed to Einstein or Picasso, because performing music and seeing how a song evolves is much more dynamic than just watching somebody stare at an equation.

PARKS: Well, it depends on the writer, doesn’t it? You know, I’m a musician. In a modest way, but I’m a musician. I know what it is to be in a studio with musicians. I know what it is to be in a studio with dudes and saying like, “This is what I need.” I know what it is to sit down at an instrument and have to find a song or have the changes, the chords and the melody, and maybe the words too, but not find the groove. I’ve been there. You know? So when writing Genius: Aretha, I’ve been able to draw from my own experience. I know that sometimes you have to get lost before you find a song. When I read things like what happened to Aretha, I could write from a really authentic place.

When it came to making that list of songs you wanted to make sure you included, were there any that were make or break? Like, “I don’t know if I can make this show without being able to use this song.”

PARKS: No, because I feel like Aretha’s story is bigger than her songs, her hits. I mean, Aretha’s story is all about the fact that when the spirit called, she answered with song, right? So if we weren’t allowed to use any of her songs, that would have been problematic. Right. If we were only allowed to use like one song… “You’re only allowed to use ‘Rock Steady,'” that would have been highly problematic. No question. Other than that, no. Because it’s about her genius. It’s not about her hits.

I mean, the creative process — you have to be embracing of change and flexible. That happens to production too, right? Like with COVID. I mean, when we had the COVID safety guidelines, we went back to shoot. We had five episodes in the can. We went back to shoot in September and we were given pages and pages of COVID safety protocols that some of them… I had imagined, “Yeah! There’s going to be a party scene!” With these plot points that are going to happen in the party scene. I was so excited about that scene, and then I get the COVID safety protocols — I have to rewrite the scene because we can’t have a hundred actors on set. You can only have maybe seven. So that kind of thing was happening all the time. There’d be a song that we didn’t use or couldn’t use, or a scene that we couldn’t shoot — we were constantly being flexible and making just the most beautiful show that we could.

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Image via NatGeo

You mentioned having a ton of research material to use. When it came to working with that kind of material, what kind of sources did you find the most useful?

PARKS: Oh, wow. Well, all of them, you know? All of them, because I’m creating a person. With Clive Davis, for example, we’d hang out in person. He has offices in New York. Later when COVID hit, we would do Zoom all the time. We had a weekly meeting and he would tell me all kinds of cool things about her. She loved jokes, he’d say. So that was very useful. I would go, “Wow, okay. She loves jokes. So maybe I can show a scene where she’s telling jokes.”

Or a photograph, for example, showing her and her husband Glynn Turman, and they’re hugging very lovingly. That’s very beautiful, to see how they just connect with each other physically in a photograph. Or listening and re-listening, and re-listening to her music, because I began to feel that one of the beautiful places to find Aretha Franklin is in her music. Her story is in her song. So I listen and listen. So you could say in her music is a great place to find Aretha Franklin. Also, there’s a wealth of biographical materials. Interviews. She did tons of interviews for all kinds of publications — news clippings about how she stood up for Angela Davis. There are all kinds of cool things out there.

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Absolutely. In terms of when it came to plotting everything out, what was important to you about having a flashback structure as part of the project?

PARKS: It was really important to me because I’m working to create a sense of a whole person, and aware that sometimes a strict chronology can lull a viewer into this kind of anesthetized complacency. Also, it’s been used really beautifully in the previous Genius series. Einstein used it, Picasso used it. It helps us understand in a visceral way how she became the Queen of Soul. The shy little girl who was scared to solo in church becomes a woman who basically saves the Grammys.

The juxtaposition of her present and her past, continually dovetailing those two storylines, will really help us understand it in a visceral way. Not just an intellectual way. “Oh yeah. She was young and then she worked hard and then she grew older.” Not that thing, but to see Little Re sad after Melba has left the family and have to get up on that box because she’s too short to reach the microphone. And she has to sing in church, solo in church for the first time helps me understand the young woman in Muscle Shoals, who’s making a solo record with a bunch of white guys she’s never met. So those kinds of things helped me understand it.

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Image via NatGeo

So you’ve had this experience working on Genius and The People vs. Billie Holiday. Let’s say tomorrow, I got hired to write a biopic of somebody and I came to you for advice. What would you tell me?

PARKS: “Do you have a title in mind?” I would say. You have a subject, I’m assuming, bt the title’s going to be a kind of north star for you. The title is going to give you a hint at where the path is and where the path is not. Check it. The United States vs. Billie Holiday. I was like, “Okay, I know the title of this thing, I know what I’m going to focus on.” Okay. Genius: Aretha. I know the title. I know what I’m going to focus on. And then, yeah. Fill your bookshelf with everything you can find of this person you’re going to be writing about. That’s what I can think of right now.

So I want to wrap up with just one last quick thing, which is that you have a credit on a Spike Lee movie, and I wanted to get the story of how you ended up working together.

PARKS: Yeah. I do. That was a long time ago. Girl 6. Yeah, 1996. Yeah. That wasn’t even my first film. The first film I made was with Christine Vachon and Todd Haynes back in 1990 — I’ve been working in the fields of film for a long time and then TV after that, with Their Eyes Were Watching God and Oprah and all that kind of stuff. I’ve been doing a lot of different kinds of writing for a long time, but yeah.

So yeah, I was hanging out with Spike — we had a meeting, like you sit down and have a coffee. I didn’t know him socially. Wait, I’m trying to think, did I? I might have. We both lived in Brooklyn. We were hanging and we were walking. He’s like, “You want to write a screenplay for me?” And I’m like, “Sure, man, yo, I’ll do it. That’s cool.” And that’s we went from there. It was that simple.

I seem to get things to come to me in strange ways. I’m just like minding my own business and someone calls me or someone says, “Hey, you want to do something?” I’m like, “Yeah. Okay. I’ll do it.”

The four-night Genius: Aretha premiere event begins Sunday, March 21 on Nat Geo. All episodes will be available on Hulu.

KEEP READING: ‘Genius: Aretha’ Trailer: Cynthia Erivo Transforms Into the Iconic Soul Singer for Nat Geo Series

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Liz Shannon Miller
(255 Articles Published)

Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She is currently Senior TV Editor at Collider, and her work has also been published by Vulture, Variety, The AV Club, The Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of “X-Files” trivia. Follow her on Twitter at @lizlet.

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