Disclaimer: This may seem like a review of all of the spate of docudramas/documentaries featuring iconic black women. It is not. However, I’m glad I had the opportunity to see:
- The United States vs. Billie Holiday
In fact the timing of their release couldn’t have been more propitious. Together they highlight the evolution and foundation of the black musical experience in America. As seemingly disparate their stories music links them all inextricably. Women all driven by their passion for their extraordinary gifts to reach the world.
As I watched these and many other such films, I wondered does oppression tell our story? To paraphrase an old Roberta Flack tune, does it strum our fate with it’s fingers and sing our lives with it’s words? These stories all are mightily burdened with another aspect of the American black experience: Racism/White Supremacy. It’s unfortunate because in order to view any of these stories one must view them through the prism which reflected the times.
Despite all this the Aretha docudrama was beautifully written, filmed and casted. It managed to tell a story compelling enough to keep interest without resorting to overt sensationalism. Besides there’s nothing here you didn’t already know as far as those less than savory aspects of her life.
It is decidedly and unapologetically a black film. There’s just no other way to put it. You can smell the cigarettes and perfume and liquor in one of the early scenes. In another you may have thought you were tasting that fried chicken. The imagery of being a child in a black household of the 40s,50’s & 60’s is not unlike the one Aretha was raised in.
Both Shaian Jordan who portrayed Aretha as a child as well as Cynthia Erivo playing adult Re deserve Emmys for their brilliant performances. As does Courtney Vance for his studied depiction of Rev. C. L. Franklin.
One of the things I learned in watching many of these movies is to relax my rigid need for every physical resemblance and detail to be spot on. I’m sure possibilities exist but after all isn’t this what the skill of ‘acting’ is supposed to produce? If that’s the case Ms. Erivo uses her skills magnificently. If you remember Aretha offstage, she was almost flat. Not exactly a font of bubbling personality – esp. if she did not know you. This required a nuanced performance consisting of glances, posture, movement, and overall presentation/wardrobe. However even if all else failed -it doesn’t – her singing her own Aretha tunes were easily the crowning points of this series.
As we’re well aware to sing like Aretha Franklin is a feat few have tried and even less succeed.
Ms. Erivo and Danielle Brooks have both captured the monumental task of recreating two of the most important voices in black musical culture. There would be no Aretha without Mahalia and even though few can touch her the many successors to Aretha needed her lead.
Another aspect of Aretha is how her father is portrayed. He is a bit of a scoundrel but in true Biblical parlance we’re challenged by the question of who’d throw the first stone of condemnation?
Without C.L.’s guidance, mentoring, stage daddying, management and influence I doubt she’d have reached the pinnacle of success she eventually enjoyed. Like Joe Jackson later and contemporary with Ike Turner these men are often vilified. However, this begs the question I asked previously: does oppression tell our story? This includes black men too.
As much as possible we cover key aspects of Ms. Franklin’s life. From the Columbia days to and through the hallowed Queen of Soul Atlantic years and her lasting connection to Clive Davis and Arista. It’s all wrapped in a neat bow with her Nessum Dorma substitute performance for Luciano Pavarotti.
All the usual suspects like Dr. King, James Cleveland, Ted White, Clara Ward, Ahmet Artegun and Jerry Wexler as well as musicians and superstar vocalists are all well featured and referenced in a relatively decent historical context.
See it for yourself. If nothing else please enjoy some of the best singing this side of The Queen of Soul herself.