Not everyone is a fan of the new National Geographic historical docuseries Genius: Aretha and this crowd surprisingly includes some from the demographic you would think were jumping at the chance to see the Queen of Soul brought back to life.
A myriad of reasons has been attributed to what effectively counts as a boycott of the series by many African-Americans. Many of them have registered their displeasure with the fact that Franklin was played by a non-American Black woman, Cynthia Erivo. The 37-year-old actress is a Nigerian-British actress who has won acclaim and accolades including an Emmy, a Grammy, a Tony, and two Oscar nominations.
This is not the first time Erivo, cast in the role of a cherished African-American figure has been greeted with contempt by Black Americans. In 2019, Erivo appeared in only her third movie (she has spent most of her acting career on stage) as Harriet Tubman in Harriet. She won nominations for Golden Globe and Academy Awards’ Best Actress slots for her portrayal of the heroine of the Underground Railroad. But the question that was asked was if producers could not secure a Black American descendant of a slave.
When Harriet came out, it was also revealed that Erivo in 2013 had tweeted a mockery of how many African-Americans talk, calling it the “ghetto accent”. The tweet, which she apologized for, was interpreted as not only a dislike for African-Americans but hatred for her Black identity.
At the premiere of Harriet at the Toronto International Fim Festival, Erivo was forced to respond to the backlash generated by the tweet: “As for the tweets, taken out of context without giving me the room to tell you what it meant–and it wasn’t mocking anyone, really. It wasn’t for that purpose at all. It was to celebrate a song I had wrote when I was 16.”
Calls by Black people in America to have historical Black figures, as well as American Black characters played by African-Americans, have been ongoing for the last few years. When the Oscar-nominated Judas And The Black Messiah was released in late 2020, it was met with the same sort of outrage because the role of Fred Hampton was portrayed by Uganda-British actor Daniel Kaluuya.
But with Genius: Aretha, the problems are not simply because Erivo is on screen. Kecalf Cunningham, a son of the singer posted on his Instagram page in February that producers of Genius “pushed through without [the family’s] consent”. He also said the family held no ill-feelings towards the actors who were just “doing their jobs” but “if you are a true fan [of Franklin’s] please do not support [Genius: Aretha]“.
Cunningham’s call was reiterated on Twitter before the first episode of the series was broadcast on Sunday. It continues to gather moss as more and more on the social media platform are tweeting their support for the family.