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Aretha Franklin’s Family Denounces NatGeo’s ‘Genius’: It’s About ‘Common, Decent Respect’

Aretha’s son Kecalf Franklin says the network didn't cooperate with the estate, and that they won't be tuning in.

L to R: Aretha Franklin, played by Cynthia Erivo, Carolyn Franklin, played by Rebecca Naomi Jones, and  Erma Franklin, played by Patrice Covington perform on stage. (Credit: National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

“Genius: Aretha”

National Geographic/Richard DuCree

There’s one group that won’t be tuning in to “Genius: Aretha,” National Geographic’s four-night limited series about the life and work of Aretha Franklin, and that’s the Queen of Soul’s own family. Last week, Aretha Franklin’s granddaughter Grace posted a TikTok video protesting the show and its accuracies, and that was also when her father Kecalf Franklin publicly denounced the project as well.

“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,” Grace Franklin said. “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.”

The series features Cynthia Erivo in the leading role and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks as showrunner. Other cast members include Courtney B. Vance, Malcolm Barrett, and David Cross.

In a new interview with Rolling Stone, Kecalf Franklin alleged that the producers on the NatGeo didn’t ultimately want his family’s input on the series, which went into production in 2019.

“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,” he said, confirming he’s never see any of the limited series and doesn’t intent to watch it. “That’s usually the case when people say that they don’t want to work with you.”

Kecalf said communication between the network and his family stopped after his cousin, Sabrina Garrett-Owens, resigned her post as representative of Aretha’s personal estate.

“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,” he said. “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.”

But Kecalf said that the family actually didn’t believe it was too late to offer notes on the series. “It seems as if the final editing hadn’t been done, that there was something that could have been done in that area, maybe after we had previewed it. They did send a non-disclosure agreement but the terms in that contract, they weren’t giving us creative control or anything like that as well. So it’s kind of like they just wanted us to check it out. But if we didn’t like it then, ‘Oh well. Sorry.’”

He said that that miscommunication wasn’t related to any financial issues, as licensing of Franklin’s music is handled separately than within the family. “This is about common, decent respect for our family,” he said. “If I was to do a movie on your family, I would try and speak with you, your sons, daughters, grandchildren and people like that. And we just never felt like we got a shot to speak to them freely from my heart about our family member.”

In a statement in response, a NatGeo representative said, “We think we have a shared goal here – to honor 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. The studio worked diligently to attain the endorsement of Aretha’s estate, which we are grateful to have.”

The NatGeo rep added, “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.”

“Genius: Aretha” premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday, March 21, with two episodes per night through Thursday, March 25. Episodes will be available the next day on Hulu.

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