From Wednesday, 30 June on National Geographic (DStv channel 181) at 21:00
From Wednesday, 30 June on National Geographic (DStv channel 181) at 21:00

Raising Genius: Aretha – meet Reverend C.L. Franklin

Courtney B. Vance talks about playing Aretha’s dad Reverend C.L. Franklin, the preacher who “loved Sunday morning… and Saturday night” in Genius: Aretha on National Geographic (DStv channel 181), coming soon to DStv

Actor Courtney B. Vance was taking on one of the most complex and contradictory characters in National Geographic’s (DStv channel 181) Genius: Aretha series when he stepped into the mirror-polished shoes of Aretha’s (Cynthia Erivo) father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, the “man with the golden voice”.

In episode 1 during one of his house parties, the Reverend tells a couple of his guests, “If I stumble on Saturday night, the world hears about it Sunday morning.” He certainly gave his congregation a lot to talk about. The Reverend was a man who understood human fragility and fallibility on a personal level and perhaps as a result, he preached with a fire and passion about the gospels of humanity and forgiveness.

The Reverend C.L. Franklin was also a nurturing and loving father to Aretha throughout her life. He supported her ambitions as an artist and nurtured her career and her right to raise her voice well beyond the attitudes of the time.

When 12-year-old Aretha (played by Shaian Jordan) finds out that she’s pregnant in the series, the Reverend never raises his voice. There’s no shade of blame in him toward a child who’s been taken in by a predator, only loving compassion. Aretha asks her father whether he’s angry with her, and he tells her, “No, baby. And this is not going to stop you from singing, or from going to school. This is not going to stop you from what you were meant to do.”

But the series also shows us that when the Reverend himself got a 12-year-old girl in his congregation pregnant, he chose to skip town with his family to save his reputation, abandoning the child and her baby and causing his own pregnant wife Barbara Franklin (Antonique Smith) appalling heartache, which destroyed their marriage.

Read on as Courtney talks about breathing life into his portrayal of the Reverend and all his contradictions.

Watch Genius: Aretha S3 from Wednesday, 30 June on National Geographic (DStv channel 181) at 21:00

Read more about Genius: Aretha Watch National Geographic

The father of the artist

How did Aretha’s upbringing with the Reverend affect her as an artist?

Courtney: She had to overcome so much, from 10 years old when her mother and father split. She may not have known about the little 12-year-old that he got pregnant, which pushed them out of Memphis and out over to Detroit. They had to leave the city of Memphis because of that issue. But all the children heard the arguments, which eventually led her mother to leave. That was unheard of, that a woman leaves her children. But as a pastor, he wasn't going to have the shame of having… the husband and wife can split, but you're not gonna take my children because that looks like that's something else. So the family was completely unique. And out of that pain, out of that chaos, out of that mess, Aretha on top of that had the 2 babies (when she was still a child herself). And on top of that she had to spend 7 years trying to find her voice (as a recording artist). When you go through something, by the time you get to your goal, you can stand up on that mountain top and go, “Yeah, I did this.” This is not an overnight sensation. She was not what you would think she would be, because she was so super talented. She was the genius where she could play anything. She could hear something played, or she could hear something sung, and she could play and sing herself on one hearing. She was a genius in that that's a gift that she would not give up. She would not. I don't care how bad it looks. Yes, I'm depressed, but I'm not going to give up. The mess of her father that he gave her, that sustained her for her lifetime.

What were your thoughts on approaching the scene in which the Reverend finds out that 12-year-old Little Ree is pregnant (after he takes her touring the gospel circuit with him)?

Courtney: It was a very, very interesting and beautiful scene to actually (perform). Instead of how you would think that he would go, “What!?!”, instead he didn't react. That says a lot about what happened there. As he said to his mother (Rachel Franklin, played by Pauletta Washington), “I was there. But as you know, mommy, I did the best that I could. You know I'm flawed.” It was that gentle thing that only a mother and a father know about their children. And after she got over her fury at what happened, “How could you!” Then she remembered, “Oh, my boy, my boy. I did the best I could with you. But anyway, what are we going to do now?” She went back to how are we going to help and deal with this situation? They both acknowledged that what happened was wrong. He was wrong to take her (Aretha) on the road on the gospel circuit. He knew. And she (his mother) knew what that world was like. But Big Mama let it happen because that was his daughter. The repercussions of that propelled her and the family into a whole different direction. Because of that, the world that Aretha had to grow up in was not traditional. They lived in a mansion, but she had some non-mansion issues that she had to overcome. And because of that, she was prepared for getting out in that world, and everything not being given to her with a silver spoon. She had to work. She had to work, and work, and work. And even when she did her best, and it still wasn't turning out for her, she still didn't give up. She could have given up after the first year, after the second year, after the fourth year, after the sixth year. But she didn't, and in the seventh year, she broke through. Victory.

How did you come to grips with a character who’s a preacher and a sinner – a man who “loves Sunday morning and Saturday night”. 

Courtney: We are who we are. And we justify ourselves. We all know we all do things that we know that we shouldn't be doing, and we justify it somehow. He is a human being, flawed as we all are. And I just have to serve that. The beauty is seeing the spirit in which they dealt with all of what they would deal with as a family, and still remain a family. They saw him tear down their mother and push their mother out of the house. They saw that, but they still were daddy's children. They knew that their father was messy, and he did the best that he could. He took good care of them as best he could. I don't judge, I have to perform it in the context of the time and of the church. And of course, the church knew he was absolutely wrong. But they know the world was absolutely wrong. And they had been harmed by the world as well. I knew that the people who were most readily harmed by the world, by black and white men, were children, black children and black women. It was a world that was so complex. But at the same time, you had to be in the world and live in it. And you needed some joy. They had to find some way to celebrate. There was so little joy, so little light in their worlds. And so Saturday night and Friday night was the time they had the chance to do something, and get something. Was it wrong? Absolutely. Based on how they were raised in the church, absolutely. But they needed something. And God knows they're free. So they went to church Sunday morning. And 2 to 3 hours prior to that, they went to the club. And so it goes.

Please talk a little bit about the crossover we see in Reverend Franklin between being a preacher and being an entertainer.

Courtney: There’s an overlap in the business of church, the entertainment of church. It has a rhythm. It has a ritual to it. There's a pomp and circumstance to it. People like to know, like to be familiar with things. They like things to happen the same kind of way. The sermons are always different. The music is always different, but the format in which it's placed, is a format it has to have. Pastors have to establish that, so that people know how they do things and how they roll. Some churches are very quiet and staid, and they attract people who like that. Some black churches are quiet and they just do the sermons. I've been to them, and if that's what you need and are used to, that's there for you.

There's some churches that, as Dr Martin Luther King said, have more power and more religion in their feet than they do in their brain. It’s a very, very real thing. The entertainment version of it, the black church, is very musical. It’s a tradition of call and response. It’s a show. If you go to a Pentecostal black church, you're gonna see people fall out, you're gonna see the Holy Ghost, you're gonna see people being laid out in the Spirit.

I used to go to an Abyssinian Baptist church where I was baptised and white folks used to be lined up down the block to get up in the cheap seats up there, to sit up there just to watch the service, to watch the choir. And sometimes once they had finished singing, the people started to get up and leave! And the pastor said, “No, no, no, stay there till I finish my sermon.” Black churches as a whole, they’re all different kinds of gradations. It really depends on what kind of show that you know. The Catholic Church, the ritual, the pomp and circumstance, it's a thing. As people, we love to know that the pastor, our Bishops, are up there, and doing the things that we do that we need. We know as soon as he finishes or she finishes that (portion of the service), I'm going to go and get on my knees. And then they're going to go up and on their knees. It’s a whole ritual which, as people, we need. We need that.

And when you see the Reverend C.L. Franklin in full voice during his Sunday sermon, and what it brings to his church to hear Aretha sing, you’ll know just what Courtney means.

Watch Genius: Aretha S3 from Wednesday, 30 June on National Geographic (DStv channel 181) at 21:00

Genius: Aretha will be available on Catch Up on DStv, and the season will build to a Box Set, so you’ll be able to binge it in 1 go from Wednesday, 18 August. 

NB! National Geographic (DStv channel 181) is available on DStv Premium, Compact Plus, Compact and Family. To get DStv or to upgrade your package, Click here

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