Few artists in history create a seismic shift in American culture. Even fewer can live up to the iconoclastic career of Aretha Franklin as both a musician and activist. Not only did she break through barriers, but Aretha transcended the constraints of genre and music. Few can live up to the charisma and talent of Aretha. Yet the third entry in Genius, a National Geographic biographical anthology, captures lightning in a bottle. A multi-hyphenate in her own right, Cynthia Erivo steps into a role she was born to play. She inhabits every emotion and feeling of love that made Aretha a titan. Driven by its lead, Genius: Aretha provides the stage for Erivo’s transcendent performance.
Genius: Aretha follows her long career. It quickly establishes her life as a child star (Shaian Jordan) before returning to breakthroughs throughout her career (Erivo). Growing up, she must emerge from the shadow of her father, C.L. Franklin (Courtney B. Vance), a preacher and activist for civil rights. As an adult, she contends with her husbands (Malcolm Barrett and Luke James) and new artistic avenues to unleash her talent. Through the trials and tribulations, she emerges as a superstar.
Erivo’s talent has never been in doubt, and her soulful performance style unlocks levels of Aretha few actresses can achieve. She internalizes the anguish and pain of Aretha’s life, but you can read the fight across her face. Her motivations change throughout the season as Aretha steps into new roles. She furthers civil rights, tends to her family, and follows her dreams to superstardom. Erivo proves capable of adding nuance to her performance while belting ballads and performing showstopping hits. There are moments where she defaults a mimicry of Aretha, but rarely does it take you out of the scene. A closeup in the first episode is among the best shots of the year, as Erivo connects with us through the camera. It will be tough to imagine Jennifer Hudson lives up to Erivo.
Erivo is not the sole actor to take the screen by force. Once again, Vance brings gravitas and charisma to a flawed man. Vance sells the grief and anger of a man who suffers many losses. He brings out the pride of a Bible-driven man but is never above hypocrisy. The demons that haunt his actions are ever-present. He is both righteous and ignorant of the effects of his actions. Vance makes Franklin loving and passionate, even when those passions drive him towards his vices. Vance dominates the narrative, especially early in the series, never letting a moment slip from his grasp.
The craft of the series shines throughout the decade-spanning story. Franklin’s origins in the church are heavily examined, allowing for subtle changes in style and vision as years go on. However, as Franklin travels with her father, the unique styles of various counties and churches come out. Subdued clothing choices meet the black and white visuals to open the series. Disco brings boisterous clothing to match, and the sets explode with patterns and color. Genius has allowed its artisans to showcase a changing world before, but Genius: Aretha gets to explore subcultures and regionality through its unique lens.
Setting a high watermark for the Genius anthology series, Genius: Aretha bursts onto the scene thanks to its extraordinary performance. Erivo’s thunderous performance is among the best of the past year in television, one that may overshadow similar portrayals in the coming months. Her intensity and skill push the cast to raise their game, and the crew rises to the task. A deep Limited Series field presents problems in the Emmy race, but Genius: Aretha could become a sleeping giant to watch for.