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‘It Was a Perfect Opportunity’: Courtney B. Vance Talks Pulling from His Own Experience As a Minister to Portray Rev. C.L. Franklin In Limited Series ‘Genius: Aretha’

The incomparable career and life of reigning ‘Queen of Soul’ Aretha Franklin is taking center stage, again, but this time in Nat Geo’s anthology Genius series with “Genius: Aretha,” starring celebrated actors Courtney B. Vance and Cynthia Erivo, who plays Franklin. Atlanta Black Star spoke with Vance about his role as the highly regarded Rev. C.L. Franklin.

The eight-part limited series kicks off March 21, and in four nights will explore the genius vocalist’s upbringing under Rev. C.L. Franklin, her complex personal relationships and journey to find and take ownership of her voice.

Rev C.L. Franklin, played by Courtney B. Vance, preaching in church (Credit: National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

The late singer passed away on August 16, 2018, at the age of 76 following a battle with pancreatic cancer. Filming for the highly anticipated project began in November 2019 before being interrupted in March 2020. The timing of it all, Courtney’s birthday, left him with an expectation of sorts. 

“I thought they were supposed to throw a party, a little gathering for me and all, but they said ‘Court, the party is, you gotta go home. They’re shutting us down,’ ” he recalled of finding out that production was being halted on his birthday, March 12, due to the coronavirus pandemic and looming global lockdowns.

At the time, he says production crews thought they would be back in the swing of things in just a few weeks’ time. Filming ultimately resumed in October 2020 and concluded just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday. 

“The foundation was up underneath it; we had a strong family, and so not just the core family but the crew and everybody. We were very about each, each other,” he said of the cast and crew’s safe return to complete filming of the limited series. 

Bringing the legendary Rev. Franklin back to life for television was an easy feather for Courtney to add to his hat of accolades and impressive roles. With a career that spans over three decades, he’s taken on roles in films like “The Hunt for Red October,” “The Preacher’s Wife,” HBO’s breakout series “Lovecraft Country,” and in “American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson” in his critically acclaimed portrayal of Johnnie Cochran. 

C.L. Franklin (R), played by Courtney B. Vance, expresses concern for Aretha Franklin (L), played by Cynthia Erivo, as she’s in the hospital for a broken arm. (Credit: National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

“The project in itself, the potential of playing that character is very exciting. It was a perfect opportunity. I just wanted to be able to be on the team and serve,” he said of his initial thoughts when accepting the role. 

Courtney, who is not only an Emmy and Tony Award-winning Broadway star, is also an ordained minister. While playing Rev. C.L. Franklin may have been a bit of a stretch in terms of the reverend’s storied partying, Courtney was able to pull from his own experiences in the pulpit to bring Rev. Franklin’s sermons back to life.

“[I did] pull from some of that, and just trying to find some of his, you know, his rhythm. He’s unique, he was unlike anyone else,” he explained of the Civil Rights Movement pioneer who lead New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. 

“I could pull from the experience of being a pastor, but the experience of who this person, who this pastor was, was unlike anyone else,” said Courtney who also is a Detroit native. “And in that time period, there was nobody like him back there,” he added.

In the limited series, scenes of Rev. Franklin traveling the Southern church circuit with a young Aretha, “Little Re,” played by Shaian Jordan, gives audiences a glimpse into his lively sermons, but also his Friday and Saturday nights that were just as lively without the gospel.

“The churches and the clubs were right on the same block,” added the Harvard and Yale graduate as he explained how different the world was during the 1960s. Finding recourse from the stressors of life was difficult for the Black community, who sought refuge in church and leisure in the nightlife scene.

“Friday and Saturday nights was that. I really had to listen to a lot of sermons and let him wash over me, find that rhythm. They called him the pastor with the million-dollar voice so I had to really, really, find that center of him.”

C.L. Franklin (L), played by Courtney B. Vance, with his daughter Little Re, played by Shaian Jordan, in the Franklin home (Credit: National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

Filled with awe Courtney says he was blown away by the performances of both Cynthia, and childhood Aretha portrayed by newcomer Shaian.

 “Oh, Shaian was just a, she’d never been in front of a camera before, so for her to do what she did for us, with us, hats off to her. I absolutely adored her,” he said of the 14-year-old.

“Cynthia was, you just look in her eyes and she’s there.” The Oscar nominated actress merged her captivating acting chops with her outstanding vocals to portray the “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” songstress through her years of singing jazz to finding and using her true voice as the Queen of Soul. 

“The young Aretha was so shy … just to watch her ramp up to that energy level that when she began to take control of her [Aretha’s] life, and push and she was in charge, and Rev. Franklin had to come to her … and the push-pull of it all was so amazing to see.”

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