Before Aretha Franklin’s death in 2018, the Queen of Soul had been involved with production for Respect, including the decision for Audra McDonald and Jennifer Hudson to appear in the film. At the time of her death, the film did not yet have a screenplay or a director, those would come later with Tracey Scott Wilson’s screenplay and Liesl Tommy at the helm in her feature film directorial debut.
Respect is the Embodiment of What it Means to be a “Natural Woman”
In recent years, there have been a number of biopics dedicated to musical legends and Respect follows a similar formula: the inciting action of childhood, which developed the love for music; interpersonal struggles surrounding securing a record deal; and then the rise to international fame and the side effects associated with it. The difference between Respect and recent award contenders like Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman is that the film is not just about Aretha Franklin’s musical acclaim, but the spiritual struggle that made her gospel album, Amazing Grace, the best-selling gospel album of all time.
Respect starts with Aretha’s childhood in Detroit as the daughter of the acclaimed Baptist preacher C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker). While the film does not dwell particularly long on her adolescence, Skye Dakota Turner does a magnificent job building the underlying trauma that Jennifer Hudson later embodies as her career begins to grow. One particular moment shared between Aretha and her mother Barbara (Audra McDonald) at the piano before her untimely death, becomes a pivotal memory that Aretha carries with her.
Throughout the film, Aretha Franklin’s unspoken childhood trauma and emotional turmoil are minimized by her father and husband-turned-manager Ted (Marlon Wayans) as her “demons.” While some might find this infuriating, anyone who has grown up in-or-around the Baptist Church knows that this is exactly what trauma is called and how it is treated. Respect insinuates that Franklin’s main source of trauma lies with a rape that occurred when she was twelve, during one of her father’s house parties, which left the girls largely unattended in a house full of adults.
In reality, Franklin never revealed the paternity of her first two sons, and the film never truly addresses what happened to her. Perhaps, intentionally leaving it ambiguous and using it to underline the trauma and struggle that Franklin endured and how it influenced the songs that would become feminist power songs.
Hudson does a tremendous job paying homage to Aretha Franklin not just as a vocalist, but as a woman. As one can expect from a biopic of this nature, Franklin’s beloved tracks “Respect,” “Ain’t No Way,” and “Amazing Grace” are brought to life anew by Hudson who sings her face off in the film. But some of her best performances are not when she is singing, but when she is internalizing these deep bouts of depression and struggling with breaking free from the abusive men in her life.
In addition to being an incredible singer, Aretha Franklin was also involved in the Civil Rights Movement, which the film does not shy away from. Her father was a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr. and the film even depicts the day that King surprised Aretha with a special award at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which honored her with her own day, “Aretha Franklin Day.”
Respect is a long film, but it never lags and Franklin’s story is a gripping experience. It spans two decades of her life, reveling in the highs and lows of what it meant to be a “natural woman” for Aretha Franklin. Every aspect of the film is well-rounded, from the incredible supporting cast to the gorgeous costumes, hair, and make-up. The final act will leave you reeling, like a soul-stirring Sunday service.
Find out what it means on August 13th, when MGM’s Respect heads to theaters.