Jennifer Hudson unearths the genius of Aretha Franklin in biopic, ‘Respect’

 By Jamel Smith

August 13, 2021

A decade before her passing, Aretha Franklin hand selected Jennifer Hudson to portray her in her untitled biopic. It was shortly after Hudson won her first Academy Award for her breakthrough performance of Effie White in 2006’s Dreamgirls. Such an honor protected the actress from the criticism that followed “the other Aretha”– Tony Award-winning actress Cynthia Erivo– on her portrayal of the legendary singer in the National Geographic series, Genius: Aretha, which premiered earlier this year. 

Hudson expressed her personal feelings about the series, herself. She told Entertainment Weekly that Franklin was “adamant” that her life be a film. “If it’s not a film, it’s nothing,” Hudson said. “I’m just honored that she picked me to play her. I mean, who can say that? I would have never done it without her wishes.” 

Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin. Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert / MGM

With her head held high and conscience clear, Hudson entered into a role of a lifetime starring as the legendary Aretha Franklin in her biopic, Respect

In this riveting performance, Hudson draws from the same well of skill and dexterity seen in her 2006 role to exhume the life of a larger-than-life talent. Hudson is supported by a remarkable cast of actors and actresses to bring Franklin’s story to life: Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron, Tituss Burgess, Mary J. Blige, Saycon Sengbloh, and Tate Donovan. 

The Liesl Tommy-directed film portrays the life of the legendary figure in her formative years, spanning from ten to 30 years old. And for the most part, it does not disappoint. Within the first 30 minutes, the audience is immersed into Aretha’s extravagant life– a life ridden with greatness and pain. 

Skye Dakota Turner as young Aretha Franklin and Audra McDonald as her mother Barbara. Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert / MGM

The film opens up with a ten-year old Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner) performing a jazz standard in front of close family friends at a party. At that age, Franklin’s “going on 30-year-old” voice captivates a room full of musical giants. In 1952 Detroit, being in the presence of greatness was her everyday life. Franklin was the daughter of Reverend C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), who boasted the biggest congregation in Detroit at the time. Such a regal lineage earned her audiences with Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, Sam Cooke, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.– all of whom she referred to as “aunt” and “uncle.” Imagine that. 

Respect does not waste time exposing the darkness of such a towering life either. Audiences will sympathize and cringe at the multiple attempts to dim Aretha’s light: the abrupt loss of her mother; the religious control of her father; a molestation that resulted in her first pregnancy at the age of 12; a tumultuous relationship with her first husband, Ted White; and a closeted struggle with alcoholism that resulted in a near death fate. 

Despite the demons she faced– aptly referred to in the film as “the demon”– the film constantly contrasts her pain with great triumph. At every turn, Franklin is undoubtedly portrayed as a genius. After a string of flop cover recordings, Franklin is aggressively urged, at the behest of Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige), to find her own voice and not the voice of others. Marked as a pivotal point in the film, Franklin sets out to find and obtain her own voice, as well as her respect. 

L to R: Marc Maron as Jerry Wexler, Marlon Wayans as Ted White and Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin. Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert / MGM

From her quest, Franklin emerges as a pioneer of a sound that connects Black gospel to rhythm and blues in a way never done before. This sound is called “soul music.” The film takes viewers behind the scenes of some of Franklin’s greatest hits: “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You),” “Respect,” and “Ain’t No Way,” where we all come to fully realize how much of an architect she was in the creation of the genre. In a mirroring act with her life, Franklin uses every recording to master the perfect balance between light and darkness, holiness and secularity, the “spirit” and the “demon”– a conflict that became Franklin’s superpower and, ultimately, the backbone of R&B and soul music. 

Holistically, Respect tells the story of Black women– more particularly, Black women who grew up in church– who are often told to suffer in silence in the face of respectability politics. However, while Tommy puts her best foot forward in telling this story, this particular dramatization suffers a flat breakthrough. The two-hour-and-a-half film sets Franklin up as a “troubled genius,” but is ultimately flattened into a one-dimensional telling of a woman who defeated her life’s demons through multiple relationships, a visit from her late mother, and the recording of her gospel album, Amazing Grace

Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin and Forest Whitaker as her father C.L. Franklin. Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert / MGM

For audiences who often look to biopics for a sensationalistic view of an artist (see: Straight Outta Compton, What’s Love Got To Do With It, The Temptations), the “red bow on top” conclusion might render unsatisfactory. The oft-mentioned “demon” (later reframed as unresolved pain) is never revealed out loud…to anyone. Franklin’s molestation remains a secret for the entirety of the film, while also serving as the catalyst for her mental bondage.

While Respect might not give proper deference to “Aretha, the woman,” the film excels in uplifting another narrative often left out of conversations around Black women: their genius. It is impossible to leave this film without being in awe of Franklin’s musical foresight and execution. With every reproduced dialectal nuance, vocal riff, and piano finger placement, Hudson uses her genius to unearth the genius of a woman who gave her the opportunity of a lifetime. 

Respect will be released in theaters nationwide on Friday, August 13. 

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