The Broken and Beautiful Church Behind Aretha Franklin

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National Geographic’s biopic offers a glimpse into the congregation that formed the “Queen of Soul.”

From die-hard fans of Aretha Franklin’s music to casual observers of her life and career, a wide range of viewers will be pleasantly surprised by National Geographic’s next installment of its Genius series, Aretha, released this month. The series explores the intimate details of Aretha Franklin’s life and the unique circumstances that gave rise to her undeniable musical genius.

Much like Nat Geo’s creative retellings of Einstein’s and Picasso’s lives, Suzan-Lori Parks’ biopic of Aretha Franklin is about the human behind the icon. But on a much deeper level, Aretha is not simply about the woman behind the music. It’s about the church beneath the woman. It’s about the community of faith that gave birth to and served as the center of gravity for a young, black, female artist whose music simply cannot be separated from the gospel that permeated the core of her being.

Most viewers will already know and appreciate Aretha Franklin’s music, from her chart-topping singles to her best-selling live gospel music album, Amazing Grace. But few of us know the personal narrative that transformed the precocious pastor’s daughter into one of the most iconic figures in contemporary musical history, including the fact that the church is so central to her story.

Aretha is rightly understood as the “queen of soul” because, just like the musical genre she came to define, her own soul was inextricably intertwined with the great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1) who constantly surrounded her, advocated for her as she broke down racial, sexual, and musical barriers, and actively sustained her as she persevered in the face of extreme adversity.

Parks doesn’t paint a sacrosanct …

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