While most know Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan Lori Parks for her plays, she is also known in Hollywood for her incredible screenplays. Parks speaks about her two recent projects: Genius: Aretha – an eight-part series that chronicles the late Aretha Franklin’s musical legacy – and a tragic chapter in the life of singer Billie Holiday in the film The U.S. vs. Billie Holiday during an interview of The AAFCA Podcast.
Parks rose to prominence in the theatrical world when her play, Topdog Underdog won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002. She wrote her first screenplay, Girl 6, directed by and starring Spike Lee in 1996 and has several film projects to her credit including the adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son for HBO. For her two recent projects, Park explains she wanted to write the artists’ truth – the good and bad – to illustrate the talent and strength of the two women.
“I think I did at least two things,” Parks says. “One, I didn’t shy away from the truth of their lives. Some people were like, ‘Oh, there’s so many men in these stories.’ Well, these are two stories about women in the music business. There are a lot of men in the music business last time I looked – and certainly in Billie Holiday’s day. It doesn’t diminish their story to have men in the story. It is an opportunity to show, especially in Aretha’s case, how she, her tenacity, how she continued to triumph, how she stood up to people – Black men, white men – and how she brought people together, the men in muscle Shoals, Alabama to create I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, that beautiful song.”
Genius: Aretha is the latest addition to the Genius series by NatGeo. The eight-part series tells the story of Aretha’s rise from her gospel and jazz roots to become the legendary ‘Queen of Soul.’ When Parks got the offer to work on the project, she wanted to create a project to show how the artist overcame the challenges in her personal and professional life to become the legend we recognize today and admits along with the research, she drew on her own personal experience in the entertainment industry.
“As a black woman in the entertainment business, I’ve had to really stay strong and reach out to people. I think it’s very important to show a woman being tenacious and being ambitious, which is a bad word if you’re a woman. That’s always said in a negative way. But to show that she Aretha Franklin, for example, really wanted a hit record and how beautiful that desire is to be a star in the firmament. That’s what she wanted.”
In the film The U.S. vs. Billie Holiday, Parks explores the challenges legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday faced when she attempted to sing Strange Fruit, her song that describes the lynching of Blacks in the Jim Crow south and the FBI’s efforts to stop her from performing it. Singer Andra Day plays Holiday and Parks says she embodied the demanding role.
“I think Andra leaped into Billie Holiday,” Parks says. “I mean, she’s a lovely, lovely person and a brilliant performer but her life isn’t unlike ‘Lady Day’ you know. I think she really just leaped into the role in a way that a lot of actresses pick and choose. When I write, I really tell the actor or the director, whomever comes on board, I wrote this for you to shine.
“And I would tell Lee (Daniels) that I wrote this for you to shine brother, and same with Andra. I want you to just bite into it and let it take you. I think she did that just brilliant performance.”
Listen to the full interview on The AAFCA Podcast