Aretha Franklin's Son Claims Genius: Aretha Producers Did Not Obtain Family's Consent, Implores Fans Not to Support [Updated]

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Tonja Renée Stidhum
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Aretha Franklin and her son Kecalf Cunningham attend her 72nd birthday celebration on Sunday, March 23, 2014; Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin in Genius: Aretha (2021).
Aretha Franklin and her son Kecalf Cunningham attend her 72nd birthday celebration on Sunday, March 23, 2014; Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin in Genius: Aretha (2021).

This Sunday, National Geographic will premiere a limited series called Genius: Aretha, starring Cynthia Erivo. The four-night broadcast event will culminate on March 25, which will mark the late Aretha Franklin’s 79th birthday.

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However, Franklin’s son Kecalf Cunningham spoke out against the upcoming series this past February on Instagram, claiming the project deal was “pushed through without [the family’s] consent” and implored fans not to support it, per Detroit Free Press.

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Most recently, Franklin’s granddaughter Grace Franklin posted a video to TikTok of the family protesting the upcoming project, noting that she and the immediate family feel “extremely disrespected” by this oversight and feel that the project will have “many inaccuracies” about their matriarch.

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It’s public knowledge by now that the late Queen of Soul handpicked Jennifer Hudson to portray her in a biopic (that very biopic from MGM, Respect, is coming in August) and Erivo recently told E! News that she is “excited” there are multiple projects celebrating and honoring Franklin.

“I’m greedy. So, any Aretha I can get, I’m getting,” Erivo noted. “I want to hear Aretha coming out of Jennifer’s mouth. Those two have a really special relationship.”

Kecalf isn’t a fan of Hudson’s Respect either, however, as the 50-year-old claimed last year that he and his children had no input in the upcoming film.

“How can you make a movie about a person and not talk to the person’s sons or grandchildren about important information?” he wrote on Facebook at the time.

As for Genius: Aretha, Kecalf has noted that the family’s contention is with the series’ producers and not the actors as they’re aware the actors “are just doing their jobs.”

“As the showrunner of Genius: Aretha, I can tell you that every single day (and twice on Sunday!)—through COVID, social unrest, and every other challenge we faced—our intention was to respect Ms. Franklin in every aspect of our show and in every decision we made,” Suzan-Lori Parks, who is also an executive producer on the series, wrote in a statement.

Per previous press releases sent to The Root via National Geographic, Genius: Aretha had been dubbed “the first-ever, definitive and only authorized scripted series on the life of the universally acclaimed Queen of Soul.”

“As ‘The Queen,’ she is deserving of every single celebration of her life that the world can muster,” Parks continued. “We worked with many people who knew Ms. Franklin—from Clive Davis to representatives of her family’s estate—to make sure we told her story in an honest and authentic way. And, on a personal note, as a Black American woman, I was taught at a very young age that soul is universal. Our series is all about soul, and we are honoring the life and soul of Aretha Franklin.”

The Root has reached out to representatives for National Geographic for comment on this recent matter and we are awaiting a response.

Update: 3/17/2021, 7:31 p.m. ET:

The Root has received the following statement from a representative at National Geographic:

“We received the message from the family, we hear them and acknowledge their concern for Ms. Franklin’s legacy. 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. 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!”