Aretha Franklin’s family doesn’t approve of ‘Genius’ series: ‘This movie has to go!’

Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin singing into a microphone
Cynthia Erivo stars as Aretha Franklin in the National Geographic Channel series “Genius.”
(Richard DuCree / National Geographic)

All Aretha Franklin’s family is asking is for a little respect from the makers of “Genius: Aretha,” National Geographic’s recently released biographical series about the legendary soul musician.

Earlier this month, Franklin’s granddaughter, Grace Franklin, posted a TikTok video accusing the “Genius” team of refusing to involve her family in the third season of the show, which stars English actress Cynthia Erivo.

And over the weekend, Rolling Stone published an interview with Aretha Franklin’s son, Kecalf Franklin, backing daughter Grace Franklin’s sentiments about the project, which premiered Sunday on National Geographic. Aretha Franklin died in August 2018 at age 76.


“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,” 15-year-old Grace Franklin said on TikTok, where her family and friends can be seen chanting, “This movie has to go!” in protest of the series.

“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.”

In Rolling Stone, Kecalf Franklin clarified that National Geographic sent his family a nondisclosure agreement offering to show them the final product but made no effort to honor their input.

National Geographic told The Times it obtained approval to move forward with the program from Aretha Franklin’s estate, formerly represented by Kecalf Franklin’s cousin, Sabrina Garrett-Owens, and not affiliated with Franklin’s immediate family. When Garrett-Owens resigned about a year ago, however, the “Genius” team dismissed the rest of the family’s attempts to make contact, according to Kecalf Franklin.

“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,” Kecalf Franklin told Rolling Stone. “And the report that we got back was saying that ... production had already wrapped up and that they didn’t want to work with us. It was basically too late.”

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Kecalf Franklin conceded that the situation may have resulted from some “unfortunate” miscommunication around the time of Garrett-Owens’ exit from the Franklin estate, but contended there was “something to be learned from” the experience. He added that he had no plans to watch the series and feared that his family’s inability to participate was “a prelude to some type of unprofessional behavior ... untruth or slander” against his mother.


“This is about common, decent respect for our family,” he continued. “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 provided Monday morning to The Times, National Geographic acknowledged the family’s “concern for Ms. Franklin’s legacy” while insisting that “everyone who worked on Genius: Aretha approached telling her story with the intention to respect Ms. Franklin ... 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 noted. “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.”

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In response to National Geographic’s remarks, Kecalf Franklin maintained in Rolling Stone that “the producers of this series neglected to take the necessary steps to properly prepare for this biopic production” by excluding his family’s perspective.

“Genius” is one of two recent high-profile projects centering on the late “Chain of Fools” hitmaker — the other being MGM’s “Respect,” starring singer-actress Jennifer Hudson and set to arrive this summer. Unlike “Genius,” Kecalf Franklin told Rolling Stone that the studio behind “Respect” is “trying to negotiate” and collaborate with his family on the film.

“Most creatives begin with a subject’s immediate family to produce the most authentic and honest version of that person’s life,” Kecalf Franklin said in reaction to National Geographic’s statement.


“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.”