There may be two Aretha Franklin biopics coming out this year, but only one is getting an endorsement from members of Queen of Soul’s immediate family.
Earlier this week, the late singer’s granddaughter, Grace Franklin, posted a TikTok of her family protesting the release of Genius: Aretha, NatGeo’s four-part series starring Oscar-nominated actress Cynthia Erivo as Aretha. The series, for which Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks is showrunner, premieres on Sunday. In the clip, she’s chanting along with her parents, siblings, and friends, “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 says later in the clip. “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.”
In a phone call on Friday, her father and Aretha’s son Kecalf Franklin supported his daughter’s words. “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 tells Rolling Stone, adding that he has not yet seen any clips from Genius and will not be watching it Sunday. “That’s usually the case when people say that they don’t want to work with you.”
Production on Genius began about two years ago, just months after Aretha Franklin’s 2018 death of pancreatic cancer. At the time, one of Kecalf’s cousins, Sabrina Garrett-Owens, was serving as the estate’s personal representative. By the time she resigned her post, she still had not yet reached an agreement, and it was around that time that Kecalf says communication ceased between the Genius crew and his family. When they attempted to reestablish it, he says they were rebuffed.
“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 says. “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.
“I felt like it wasn’t too late, though, because of the time period in which the film was going to drop and also the time period that we had reached out to them,” he continues. “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.’”
Franklin claims that the misunderstanding has nothing to do with any financial interest; any licensing of his mother’s songs would go through her estate, a separate entity from her immediate family, and he said he was unaware of any deals between the producers and the estate. “This is about common, decent respect for our family,” he says. “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, NatGeo acknowledged a disconnect with the Franklin family but claimed their approach was typical of their Genius series, which has focused past seasons on Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso.
“We received the message from the family, we hear them and acknowledge their concern for Ms. Franklin’s legacy,” a rep for the network said in a statement to Rolling Stone. “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 statement continues. “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. One of the comments from a guest attending our premiere last week was: ‘Aretha lived so much life… she needs 100 biopics!.’ We can’t say it any better!”
Kecalf, who is one of Aretha’s four sons, guesses that the only family members the producers might have spoken to would be a few of his cousins. Rolling Stone’s requests to clarify who NatGeo worked with from the estate were not returned. (Reginald M. Turner, the attorney representing Franklin’s estate, declined to comment.)
After reading NatGeo’s statement Friday afternoon, Kecalf wrote a statement in response. “The Genius series deal was initiated by my cousin Sabrina Garrett-Owens and her counsel, David Bennett,” he said. “When my brothers and I became aware of this project, the Genius series had already started production. It is our opinion that the producers of this series neglected to take the necessary steps to properly prepare for this biopic production. Most creatives begin with a subject’s immediate family to produce the most authentic and honest version of that person’s life. In our opinion the Genius series failed to do so. Neither I nor my brothers have ever spoken with the producers of this series. We agree that our mother’s life’s work should be celebrated but with respect.”
Garrett-Owens resigned her post a little over a year ago, according to Bennett, who adds that the Genius producers did not engage her in the making of the picture. “During my client’s period of administration, including both before and after, we have had no input in the creative aspects of the production,” he wrote in a statement. “We have no knowledge what the heirs, or their representatives or the current administration of the estate has undertaken. Before her resignation and after, all heirs to the estate knew of the project and had the opportunity to consult the producers regarding their concerns or to make any inquires they desired.”
Earlier in the day, Kecalf said he’s aware that there might have been a miscommunication. “They kind of skipped a step and it might not have been their fault because it might not have been communicated that there were other family members who needed to be talked to by the former PR [Garrett-Owens],” he says. “So, it’s unfortunate but, things like this happen. It’s just something to be learned from.”
So far, he says he has had a much better experience working with the producers of Respect, the other Aretha Franklin biopic, which stars Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson and is expected to come out this summer. “We’re actually working with MGM and … they’re trying to negotiate and work with us on their movie,” he says. “I really can’t speak on that one because we’re in negotiations still with them.”
Kecalf Franklin says he hopes to draw attention to the way films about his mother are made. “We’re just trying to make sure that the integrity of my mom is intact,” says Kecalf, who referred Rolling Stone to a website about the singer, JusticeForTheQueen.com. “We have to protect her and her legacy at all costs. We just want to make sure that if someone does want to do a project on our mother and grandmother, that first and foremost, they try and contact the inner core family and see if we have some input, maybe try to work with us to see if there’s something that we can contribute to your story. There might be some stories that we have that can contribute to your project … It’s just about respect at the end of the day.”
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