Awards Daily talks to Emmy-winning actor Courtney B. Vance about his role as CL Franklin on National Geographic’s Genius: Aretha.
In National Geographic’s Genius: Aretha, Aretha Franklin (Cynthia Erivo) had many influential men in her life, from music producer Jerry Wexler (David Cross) to husband/manager Ted White (Malcolm Barrett). But the one man who proved to be the most influential was her father, CL Franklin, played by Courtney B. Vance, a complicated character in Aretha’s life.
“CL Franklin was no different from any other—taking advantage of situations,” says Vance. “I just know that all I could do [as an actor] was understand the content. I approach this like anything else, knowing we’re all people. No one really thinks that they’re a terrible person.”
CL frequently cheats on his wife and makes some questionable decisions for his daughter, like not allowing her to finish school when she got pregnant with her second child at the age of 14. And yet, by the end of the limited series, we, too, like Aretha care for him in a way that we don’t completely understand.
A Once-in-a-Generation Voice
One thing that CL knew about Aretha was that she was special, once-in-a-generation voice. So naturally he took her on the road with him during his gospel tours, even though she was very young. Not surprisingly, he would hook up with women on tour, but sadly his own 13-year-old daughter would become pregnant to one of the men on tour. Vance speculates why CL put his own daughter in this position, knowing his own propensity for philandering.
“Why did he take her out there? He shouldn’t have. I actually believe he knew after his wife died that he had to do something when Aretha was in her catatonic state. He knew he had to get her back. Should he have had her stay in his room or have someone watching her 24/7? He should have done that.”
Just as Aretha was a once-in-a-generation voice, in many ways, so was CL, a renowned Detroit minister who was friends with many influential Black people. His impact on a congregation is evident in the “Amazing Grace” episode, when he speaks to the audience toward the end of Aretha’s performance (“Black folks know the call-and-response in their body,” says Vance. “It happens pretty quickly”), showing complete mastery of everyone’s attention. The tension in that episode also speaks to CL and Aretha’s influential voices.
“He was famous, and she became famous and eclipsed him and they weren’t together in that transition.”
CL’s Hold on Aretha
In the final episode of the limited series, CL is shot during a home-invasion, putting him in a coma for five years. Vance says “it ain’t fun” to be playing a real-life character who experiences such a sad demise.
“You can love the wonderful idea that I get to rest now, but the reality is that I’m dead. But not only dead, but dead for five years. Aretha kept him in that state for five years. I can’t conceive of that. That, too, speaks to her love for her father.”
Vance also believes that they had an unspoken bond when it came to realizing her talent.
“Despite the differences they had, she knew in her base core she wouldn’t be who she was if he hadn’t put her out there. There’s something he knew about her and something she knew about herself that only her father knew.”
All episodes of Genius: Aretha are available on Hulu and National Geographic.