Aretha Franklin: What to Know About the Biopics Starring Cynthia Erivo and Jennifer Hudson
By Stacy Lambe
Nearly three years after Aretha Franklin’s death in August 2018, the story of her life and career is being celebrated onscreen in two scripted projects: as a limited TV series in the third installment of National Geographic’s Emmy-winning Genius and as Respect, a star-studded biopic from MGM Studios. The series will star breakout actress Cynthia Erivo as Franklin, while Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson will take on the Queen of Soul in the film version.
The two actresses previously co-starred in the 2015 Broadway revival of The Color Purple before Erivo went on to win an Emmy, GRAMMY and Tony Award for her performance. She has since earned two Oscar nominations for singing and acting in Harriet, the biopic about Harriet Tubman, after previously appearing in films, Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows. Meanwhile, Hudson found renewed success on TV, with celebrated appearances in Hairspray Live! and as a mentor on multiple seasons of The Voice, as well as receiving praise for her rendition of “Memory” in the film adaptation of Cats.
While the two projects will not formally reunite the talented performers, the buzz surrounding both may see them crossing paths during the 2021-2022 awards season, where TV and film honors overlap. If both performances earn critical acclaim, it may mark the first time two actors have been nominated in the same year for their respective film and TV versions of the same person.
No matter what, Erivo tells ET to “just enjoy them and then hopefully these two versions will encourage somebody else to do the rest of Aretha’s life because we haven't. I don’t know that either one of us have managed to get to the entirety of her life because this was almost 60 years of incredible work.”
She added, “I don’t know why we can’t continuously celebrate with different versions. I think that that’s a wonderful opportunity to keep going. She deserves to be celebrated, so let’s just keep doing it.”
Main Actress: Cynthia Erivo
Also Starring:Courtney B. Vance as C.L. Franklin, David Cross as Jerry Wexler, Malcolm Barrett as Ted White, Pauletta Washington as Grandmother Rachel, Patrice Covington as Erma Franklin, Rebecca Naomi Jones as Carolyn Franklin, Steven Norfleet as Cecil Franklin, Kimberly Hébert Gregory as Ruth Bowen, Omar J. Dorsey as James Cleveland, Marque Richardson as King Curtis.
Official Synopsis: “The eight-part series will explore Franklin’s musical genius and incomparable career -- and the immeasurable impact and lasting influence she has had on music and culture around the world.”
Release Date: March 21, 2021
Erivo is a two-time Oscar nominee best known for her portrayal of Harriet Tubman in the 2019 film about the American hero. Franklin will mark the second time Erivo’s played a legend on the screen. While speaking with ET, the actress said Harriet and Genius are about “more than the fact that they're iconic.”
“Their stories are unheard, their stories are complex, their stories are full, their hearts beat right within the middle of it,” Erivo continued. “And that's the thing that I'm really honored to be able to do -- bring these women back to life and give it to the people again. Tell their stories again.”
Fleshing out the cast is a collection of esteemed TV actors, including Emmy winners Vance and Cross, as well as rising TV stars, Jones, Gregory and Richardson. They’re familiar faces and names, but not big enough to overshadow the real-life people they’re portraying.
The series does, however, pack some needed star power behind the scenes. Raphael Saadiq has been tapped to serve as executive music producer while the original score will be written and produced by BlacKkKlansman and Harriet composer Terence Blanchard. “It’s an honor to share Aretha’s genius with the world alongside the incredibly talented Cynthia Erivo and Terence Blanchard,” Saadiq said in a statement. “We’ll hit the keys, play the parts and sing the lyrics that helped pave the way for musicians like myself to trust our artistry and challenge ourselves to be bold.”
Genius is coming out ahead of Respect, with National Geographic touting that it “will be the first-ever, definitive and only authorized scripted series” about the Queen of Soul.
The late spring drop also suggests that the channel is pushing this for Emmy consideration. Especially considering that the first two installments garnered numerous nominations and two wins, it's no surprise that the network would want to give this one the same push. In addition to Erivo, it wouldn’t be shocking if Vance is among one of the acting contenders.
“The emotional trials and tribulations that [Aretha] had to go through is unbelievable, and hopefully we get to crack into some of that and share it with you and let you see that this was a woman who was successful beyond the means that she had,” Erivo said of the series.
Official Synopsis: “Following the rise of Aretha Franklin’s career from a child singing in her father’s church’s choir to her international superstardom, Respect is the remarkable true story of the music icon’s journey to find her voice.”
Release Date: August 13, 2021 (three days before the anniversary of Franklin’s death)
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Known for her powerhouse performances, including her Oscar-winning turn as Effie in Dreamgirls, it comes as no surprise that Franklin reportedly handpicked Hudson to portray her onscreen. Clive Davis, who first revealed the news back in 2018, said that the actress “stops any and every show she's in.”
“You have no idea how humbled I am!” Hudson wrote on Instagram at the time, later recalling on The Kelly Clarkson Show how the singer told her. “She called me and she was like, 'I made my decision, and it is you I want to play me. But don't you tell anyone.'”
She responded, “Ma'am, I won't say a thing. I'll do whatever you tell me to do.”
The actress, whose last film role was as Grizabella in Cats, is surrounded by plenty of star power. The supporting roles are filled with a collection of award-winning actors making this one of the prestigious casts of Black performers in recent memory.
According to the Detroit Free Press, “Franklin contributed her ideas for the film before and after the Hudson announcement.” She discussed many aspects of the movie with producers right up until her death. “Over an estimated 100 phone calls, they talked about ‘what stories she felt were important and what really made her who she is.’ They also talked about which songs ‘were important to her career’ and ‘really told her story’ and should be included in the feature-length film.”
So despite being the second scripted project about Franklin, it comes with the backing of the Queen herself.
There’s no doubt Respect is expecting to be an awards season player, likely putting Hudson herself back in the Oscar race for the first time since Dreamgirls. In fact, the awards like real-life portrayals, with Viola Davis and Andra Day both picking up nominations for their respective performances as Ma Rainey and Billie Holiday in 2020. And the fact that Renée Zellweger took home an Oscar for portraying Judy Garland, it should come as no surprise that Hudson could be one of the top contenders in the Best Actress race next year.