Soul legend Aretha Franklin received the television-miniseries treatment with Genius: Aretha, a project that works best when it lets her music do the talking.
Cynthia Erivo plays Aretha who, moments into the start of Genius, makes it clear that they found the right woman for this job. Recreating the tumultuous life of Aretha Franklin requires more, however, than just singing her classic hits with power and excitement. It requires revisiting a life filled with trauma and challenges, as foreshadowed by journalists questioning Franklin on who "calls the shots," her father or her husband, at a press conference (to which she responds, "I think you've all been reading a few too many gossip columns").
She learns to free herself from the men in her life determined to dominate her, beginning with her father, renowned Baptist preacher and civil rights activist the Rev. C.L. Franklin. Courtney B. Vance is magnetic as the elder Franklin, a preacher who, one character says, "loved Sunday morning and Saturday night." In one scene, he's urging a tween-age Aretha to sing at a house party before Art Tatum and Dinah Washington. But the Rev. Franklin is also shown as a compulsive womanizer, confronted by his girlfriend—who Aretha had grown to love, hoping she would become her stepmom.
A fight over infidelity followed by violence is a cycle we see repeated with Aretha and her husband Ted, after he ruins a recording session by fighting in the studio. "You were supposed to be good as gold," Aretha says.