Pulitzer winner Suzan-Lori Parks speaks to EW about how she approached telling the stories of two music icons.

By Maureen Lee Lenker
March 19, 2021 at 08:00 AM EDT

Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday now have more in common than their shared threads as groundbreaking Black music artists. They've both been brought to the screen by Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks.

Parks, who's the creator of National Geographic Channel's limited series Genius: Aretha, has also found herself in awards conversations this year thanks to her film The United States vs. Billie Holiday, which recently won its star Andra Day a Golden Globe for her performance as the beloved chanteuse. Parks tells EW that the Holiday project came first in 2017, followed by Franklin in 2019.

"[They are] two icons in American history, or world history really, two artists who people still lean on and find strength on," she says. "Billie Holiday didn't have the kind of family that Aretha had, and I believe Aretha's genius flourished in part because she had such a strong family unit. She had the best back-up singers any woman could want in her sisters. Her father was a north star that led the way, and her brother Cecil was always there, always loving and supportive to her."

Parks says she can hardly believe the professional good fortune of getting to spend time researching and telling the story of these two icons.

"I was in the company of saints with those two women," she affirms. "I was in the company of these sister saints and such pride for just being a woman in America, a Black woman in America, what we endure, what we bring to the table."

Both Holiday and Franklin made a mark on the music industry, using their distinctive voices and platforms to create art that helped foment change. For Parks, she says it was the obstacles the two women faced in their lives and how they rose to meet them that was a common thread in their success.

"They each had difficult circumstances and the way they responded to it was, 'You are not taking me down,'" she reflects.

Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin
Andra Day as Billie Holiday, left, and Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin.
| Credit: Takashi Seida/Paramount Pictures; National Geographic/Richard DuCree

When Parks first got the call to write Genius: Aretha, it was the "Genius" framing and the shift from the previous iterations of the Genius series (on Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso) that appealed to her.

"I thought, 'Wow, the Genius franchise is for the first time going to look at a woman genius, a Black woman genius, a Black American woman genius, a genius who's a mom," she recounts. "So, I thought I very much want to tell that story because I feel it's a story that can show us the different way a woman can be a genius, the way we work in community, the way we work to synthesize and bring things together."

"We don't just lock ourselves in our ivory towers, but we are out there in communities synthesizing as Aretha did," she adds. "How we turn our difficulties into beautiful things like Aretha did, alchemizing her pain into sonic gold. As a Black American woman, I thought there is no more beautiful project for me to be a part of. I take my sisterhood very seriously."

Parks, of course, knows what the word "genius" means firsthand, considering she herself has been the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" grant. It was getting to mine the meaning of that word, particularly when it comes to women, that fascinated her.

"The word, it's a singular ability, it's something that endures," she muses. "In my interpretation of the word, a genius [is someone] who can by holding my light, help you see the evidence of your own. That's a different kind of genius, and I do think that women geniuses, female geniuses, we do that for each other more readily. "

Genius: Aretha premieres Sunday, March 21, at 9 p.m. ET on National Geographic. Watch the video above for more.

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