Rewriting History: Pulitzer Prize Winner Suzan-Lori Parks Talks Bringing Iconic Stories to the Screen

Andra Day in The United States vs. Billie Holiday; Suzan-Lori Parks on January 17, 2020; Cynthia Erivo in Genius: Aretha
Andra Day in The United States vs. Billie Holiday; Suzan-Lori Parks on January 17, 2020; Cynthia Erivo in Genius: Aretha
Screenshot: Hulu, National Geographic, Photo: Amy Sussman (Getty Images)

As Black History Month transitioned into Women’s History Month—Black HerStory Month, if you’re nasty (or The Root)—the highly anticipated stories of two major Black musical icons made their way onto our (still quarantined) screens. February closed with Andra Day’s onscreen debut in the untold story of Billie Holiday’s battle with the FBI; and as spring dawned in March, Cynthia Erivo gave her interpretation of Aretha Franklin’s unparalleled genius for National Geographic.

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The final night of the four-part Franklin-inspired series aired on Hulu Thursday night, in tandem with what would’ve been the Queen of Soul’s 79th birthday. Also at home on Hulu, Day’s searing rendering of Holiday has already garnered her a Golden Globe and African American Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress, and an Academy Award nomination for the same.

Both Franklin and Holiday were history-making icons, and the women portraying them may well become so in their own rights, as well. But so is the woman who helped bring both stories to the screen. Genius: Aretha showrunner/screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks, who also wrote the screenplay for The United States vs. Billie Holiday, made history in 2002 when she became the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Broadway’s Top Dog/Underdog. In the nearly two decades since, the Tony Award-nominated playwright, musician, novelist and screenwriter has been a MacArthur Genius, Guggenheim Fellow and Drama Desk, PEN and Obie Award winner and a finalist for two more Pulitzers, as well as winning a 2008 NAACP Theatre Award for Ray Charles Live! A New Musical.

Speaking to the Hollywood Reporter about the difference between writing for stage and screen, Parks described it as “the difference between corduroy and velvet,” referencing her both her work on Ray Charles Live! and Billie Holiday as well as the more recent Genius: Aretha as she noted that “A film just feels differently than a play does...And they both feel differently from a limited series,”

When asked by The Glow Up to apply that same comparison to writing fictional characters versus much-beloved historical icons, she chuckled before responding, “You know, you’d think that with a fictional character...I can just do whatever I want. But I can’t I can’t just do whatever I want. There is a a groove. There’s a truth to that character—even though he or she may be fictionalized—that I have to adhere to. It’s like their truth is a magnet, and I’m going along picking up all the little bits that would attach themselves to it, you know?”

“So with a historical character, it’s the same,” she continued, “and more so even, because they have a life that’s on record for the most part that many people already know about. And so you can’t just do whatever you want—nor would I want to.”

In telling an aspect of Billie Holiday’s life and eventual death that had previously gone unexplored, Parks saw a unique opportunity to both collaborate with Lee Daniels and challenge the long-accepted narrative of Holiday as a legendary yet drug-addled chanteuse; a characterization that has historically given little context to her demise.

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“The framing of Billie Holiday from when I was a kid, I just knew my mom and dad would listen to the records, Billie’s records, and my mom would say, ‘You know, they got to her.’ And I didn’t know what that meant as a child—and my mom didn’t get into it with her child.

“But growing up, you realize that when you hear about someone who’s Black and great, and there’s some kind of story to go along with it...Let’s put it this way: It might not be the entire truth—the whole truth,” she continued. “[So] I was like, ‘Great. I’ve got an opportunity to talk about the rest of this woman’s life,’ you know what I mean?...Because you hear, ‘She’s a drug addict; she’s just a drug addict,’ but you know, why? Why did she use and abuse drugs? And I’m saying, ‘Must be something underneath that. Must be something underneath the surface of her skin,’ you know what I mean?”

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As Parks describes it, breaking the surface—whether excavating Holiday’s anguished childhood, her series of abusive relationships or her doomed love and eventual betrayal by FBI agent Jimmy Fletcher, is central to her mission—one also central to communicating a commonality of the Black experience in America.

“As Black people in this country, we are often just judged by the surface of our skin and not by our whole story,” she said. “So it was an opportunity really to tell this woman’s story—this amazing, iconic sister woman. I wanted to know more about her. I wanted to see how she loved a country that didn’t always love her back. And the same kind of way, you know, I wanted to see her fall in love with an agent of the FBI, literally an agent of the country, Jim Fletcher...

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“And then, of course, ‘Strange Fruit,’ which which is such a brilliant song...a song that was so hard to sing, and yet she had to sing it,” Parks added. “How it took so much from her and she gave it everything...Hopefully, this additional truth about her life will outlast the story of just, ‘Oh, she was a poor, drug-addled victim.’”

Of course, interpreting the stories of figures as revered as Holiday—or more recently, Franklin—aren’t without its complications. There are few people still alive to corroborate Holiday’s story (as noted in previous coverage by Entertainment Staff Writer Tonja Stidhum, who visited the set, Holiday’s former pianist and film consultant Wray Downes died in March 2020); but Franklin, who died in August 2018, was survived by children, peers and colleagues, all of whom have their own perspective and memories of the Queen of Soul. Just ahead of its release, Franklin’s son Kecalf Cunningham lobbied against Genius: Aretha, complaining that he and the rest of Franklin’s family were not consulted in the crafting of the series—complaints he also leveled against the upcoming feature film on Franklin’s life starring Jennifer Hudson. Similarly, there are those who questioned casting Erivo in the role, given that Hudson was the late diva’s handpicked choice to portray her onscreen.

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In response, Parks told Vanity Fair her aim was to echo the ongoing series’ theme: riffing on Aretha’s genius, rather than a detailed rendering of her life. “[W]here we see how she created this sound that was paradigm-shifting and that endures long after her lifetime, which are two ways to understand genius,” she explained. “And it’s also how she balanced family and career at such a high level. She was one of the stars in the firmament: How could she balance her dedication to her family and her deep, deep love of her children?” she continued. “I wanted to see that, and how her genius helps us redefine genius in the traditional, white, straight male sense...by bringing Aretha Franklin into the Genius family, we can see genius in a whole new way.”

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Elaborating on her process to The Glow Up, Parks again referenced her approach to Holiday’s story as she explained, “But what I do strive to do is to find a story in between the lines, if you will...Read between the lines, hear the notes between the notes. Learn how to hear the silences—hear the truth and the silences.”

But as she further explained, the process of revisiting—and correcting the historical record, when possible—is even bigger. “The fuel that that can give...[to] the young woman, the young Black sister who goes, ‘Huh. Billie was a soldier. I can listen to her music and then her music can give me strength now.’ Or for someone not coming up, someone my age to go, ‘Damn, that’s what she’s talking about. That can fuel, that can enhance, that can help me along my journey too, now.’

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“Because you know who’s talking to you. You know where she’s coming from. And that can convey a lot of power. So her power will hopefully no longer be diminished.”

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up, co-host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door...May I borrow some sugar?

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