Entertainment superstar Aretha Franklin was an industry icon and international treasure. Beloved by millions, honored by presidents, she also struggled with personal and family turmoil. The Queen of Soul handpicked Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson to play her in this long-awaited MGM biopic. All Aretha was askin’ for was a little respect. Does this movie bring it?
“Respect” opens Aug. 13 (North America) and on various dates on five continents.
The cast includes Hudson (“Dreamgirls”), Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland,” “Black Panther;” as Aretha’s father, Rev. C.L. Franklin), Marlon Wayans (her husband Ted White), Audra McDonald (“Beauty and the Beast;” her mother, Barbara), Tituss Burgess (musical director Rev. James Cleveland), Heather Headley (Clara Ward), and Oscar-nominee Mary J. Blige (Dinah Washington).
Aretha’s stellar career overflowed with highlights: 18 Grammy awards, concerts galore. She sang at three U.S. presidential inaugurations (Carter, Clinton, Obama) and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, a legendary Baptist preacher, was friends with Martin Luther King Jr. Aretha was active in the civil rights movement and sang at King’s funeral.
She was the first female inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the second woman into the UK Music Hall of Fame. A child prodigy, she performed piano and song at her dad’s church and revival tours. He connected her with famous singers like Dinah Washington, Sam Cooke, Clara Ward, and Mahalia Jackson. Major hits included “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
Causes, cultural and political
Film producers clearly linked Franklin’s story to current cultural and political issues, notably race and feminism.
The project was intensely personal for director Liesl Tommy, a woman of color raised in South Africa’s apartheid system. “Aretha Franklin loved Black people. I love Black people. I wanted to make sure that Black people would feel loved by this film,” she said in production notes for the film. “We’ve seen white men tell us who we are for so long, and this was our opportunity to say who we are. That authenticity is in every frame of this film.”
Screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson adds that Aretha “was learning ... lessons of feminism (self-respect, independence) ... at the time feminism was having a ride.”
Childhood stardom and road life brought temptations. Pregnant at ages 12 and 14, Aretha raised both sons with family help. She was 6 when her parents separated, 9 when her mother died. By some accounts, her father was quite promiscuous. National Geographic Channel’s 2021 television series “Genius: Aretha” portrays him as a hard-drinking, lascivious Lothario. “Respect,” perhaps through family/estate influence, pictures him more kindly, though not without fidelity flaws.
Aretha’s complicated relationship with her father affected her entire life. Her marriages to manager Ted White and actor Glynn Turman both ended in divorce. Some sources maintain Aretha struggled with alcohol. Many of her songs reflect deep emotion — pain, disappointment, desires for love — perhaps mirroring her own journey.
Soul and Spirit
Jennifer Hudson observes in the production notes, “When you grow up in church singing the way Aretha and I did ... you learn to sing with a purpose ... to a higher calling such as God. ...”
Aretha’s faith remained a lifelong source of strength. In 1972, she recorded a Gospel album, “Amazing Grace,” at a Los Angeles church. “Respect” features this event significantly. “Amazing Grace” became her best-selling album.
Attendees at the 1972 church recording sessions included Mick Jagger, who later recalled the event fondly to the Los Angeles Times: “... a really electrifying performance ... raised the hair on the back of your neck ... super-charged ... a different Aretha ... than I had experienced before.”
Her songs there were captivating. Anchored by the classic hymn, “Amazing Grace,” the sessions included her covers of Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” and of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” When she sang “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” she sounded like she knew him.
Jennifer Hudson and MGM have done a fine job of capturing and portraying Aretha’s deep feelings about her dreams and discouragements, causes and clashes, her love for her audiences, and her trust in God. Well worth seeing.
Rated PG-13 (USA) “for mature thematic content, strong language including racial epithets, violence, suggestive material, and smoking.”
Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents. He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively. www.RustyWright.com.