Emmy Award-winning director Anthony Hemingway talks to Awards Daily about his favorite scene in Genius: Aretha and what he set out to do when portraying this third icon in the franchise.
With the third season of National Geographic’s Genius limited series, director Anthony Hemingway wanted to think outside of the box in terms of what genius is when it comes to Aretha Franklin. After all, the series had covered math and art with Einstein and Picasso. How would they depict the genius of the Queen of Soul?
“Because she was so amazing in the way she brought people together,” says Hemingway, “that to me is her true genius—in connection. The fact that that quality is lasting and is a transformative quality that continues on to this day; it exceeds and blurs many lines. She’s special.”
Geniuses are often depicted as superhuman with abilities outside of the norm, and in order to tell Aretha’s story, Hemingway knew he wanted to give it a more intimate quality, trying to get at what makes a genius a genius through moments of showing her work out the right way to play a song or why a pizza box on a piano makes a tonal difference.
“You can’t really know what it’s like to be someone else unless you walk in their shoes. Making this very close and connected and personal was the decision and choice I wanted to bring to this.”
Her Genius Through the Years
Something that Genius: Aretha does that deviates from most biopic-type of projects is that it isn’t linear: It jumps back and forth between adult Aretha and child Aretha. Hemingway believes this creative device demonstrates her genius all the more.
“It confirms that quality in her. It isn’t just something she picked up; she had it when she was a child. Being able to go back and forth, it not only supported each timeline, but it was an interesting creative way to distill her life. Her music was the life she lived, so we pulled the curtain back behind the music and understood where it came from. It was interesting to connect the dots and get into her head into a way how you can see this mastermind work.”
Hemingway admits that when it came to choosing what episodes he wanted to direct (he directs the first one and the last four of the series), like any true fan, he looked at the set list. His episodes include albums like I Never Loved a Man the Way that I Loved You, Young Gifted and Black, and Amazing Grace.
“One of the things I loved about not doing her greatest hits is that we got to show more of her music that was special. I would say that the first thing I did was look at her song list as it was going to unfold over the season, so I could choose what episode would have my favorite song.”
But in addition to her musical abilities, and of course that voice, Hemingway feels that one of her underrated genius qualities is also highlighted in the series.
“I think her activism is something that really stood out. What she did in supporting not only her community but the progression of the world and movement that was helping liberate people and contributions and hope to help free people—that’s a great big part of her story that cannot be overlooked.”
Hemingway’s Favorite Scene
Toward the end of the series, when Aretha has gained more control of her narrative and her celebrity is rising, she enjoys tea and cake with her former music producer Jerry Wexler (David Cross) in one of the most satisfying scenes in the series.
In previous episodes, Wexler and Franklin butt heads when it comes to creative differences and where they see her music going. Wexler doesn’t want her to do a protest album—and she does it. He think she’s crazy to do a gospel album—and she does it. But in this scene, there’s a respect that flourishes between the two and they coalesce as similar minds enjoying each other’s company.
“That scene is one of my favorite scenes in the series. Because you got to see the friendship and you got to see their chemistry and respect for one another and the love for one another. It was just so beautiful. The whole approach to that scene was myself, Cynthia, and David sitting down and talking through that scene, breaking it down and really understanding their journey together, what we had seen in the show and where it was ending, this last moment of them together before we moved on. They had great chemistry already as two great artists and becoming colleagues and friends over the course of shooting. It was beautiful to see it work itself out. I just encouraged them to continue to have more fun.”
All episodes of Genius: Aretha are available on Hulu and National Geographic.
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer that lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, The Cut, Paste, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thrillist, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @heydudemeg.