Respect gets two things exactly right about the story of Aretha Franklin. That she was someone who appealed to almost everyone, but also that if she had not trusted her instincts and followed the path she believed would be best, rather than listen to those around her, she would never have become one of the most beloved and admired singers of all time.
Learning to trust herself, learning to listen to herself, learning to RESPECT herself is what the film Respect is about. This daughter of a preacher man learned as a child to keep quiet about almost everything. Her rape, her thoughts, and even standing up for herself when she is physically abused. She is kept under the strict thumb of her father (another magnificent turn by Forest Whitaker) and then her strict husband. Throughout the course of the film, we watch her find her other “voice,” the one that will speak up and out not just about herself and what she wants, but address bigger issues of civil rights and personal empowerment just as forcefully.
The long life and legacy of Aretha Franklin is no easy task to fit into a two-hour plus movie, but in focusing on the relationships in Aretha’s life—her mother, father, grandmother, sisters, and husbands—we get something much more than documented facts. We get to live inside of her life for the duration. This is Tracey Scott Wilson’s first screenplay (with a story by Callie Khourie) and is also director Liesl Tommy’s first feature — but what comes through very strongly in this collaboration is that it is a film by women about a woman. I think that’s why it felt so richly drawn. Their specific eye offers us elements that men might not have thought about, like the jealousy between the Franklin sisters. Or the freedom to depict Aretha’s complexity, and flaws. While they clearly admired their subject, they also humanized her. She was just a woman born with an exceptional voice who had to eventually figure out how best to use it.
The same could be said of Jennifer Hudson herself, who was last seen in the Oscar race in her memorable supporting turn in Dreamgirls. At the time, it seemed odd that a reality TV contestant would be winning an Oscar but Hudson was just that good.
Hudson’s vocal talent is so superb, in fact, that Aretha Franklin herself chose her to be the person to play her in a movie. “I want you to win an Oscar playing me,” she famously said. The ever-gracious Hudson has taken on the challenge and embodied Aretha Franklin as no one else could have. For one thing, you have to be able to blast a song. I mean sing to really rattle the rafters. I mean blow the lid off the joint.
Hudson’s voice is so good she brought tears to Denzel Washington’s eyes at his AFI tribute. That she calls him “Mr. Washington” at the end is such a thing Aretha Franklin would do, gracious and humble even as she’s bringing the house down.
Not unlike when the Queen herself made President Obama cry:
That clip of Aretha Franklin shows you just how universal her work has been in the years she’s been singing. She was an uniter — and was someone that could touch almost anyone deep in their souls. Telling her story fully and completely is no easy feat. Telling all of it in one movie is nearly impossible. And though it is long, the journey is worth it. Respect touches your soul with every electrifying moment.
Hudson’s performance is partly her incredible voice. How could it not be? She suspends time in reverie whenever she sings. But this performance also establishes her as a formidable actress capable of navigating the ever-changing waters of Franklin’s complicated life—from a young wife who doesn’t quite understand exactly what kind of gift she actually has, through to finding a way to honor her own creative spirit. She instinctively shows us how Aretha KNOWS what will sound best. Even when every time she turns around there is someone telling her what she should do differently, they’re always wrong. She’s always right, or knows on her own how to make it right.
What’s also great about this movie is that the “side characters” are fully formed — especially Kimberly Scott as the matriarch of the Franklin family, caring for Aretha’s children, holding their family together, and representing a touchstone for Aretha herself. The most moving storyline is that of Aretha’s mother played by Audra McDonald. Beaten by her husband, with her kids taken from her, she and Aretha have an emotional bond that inspires Aretha throughout her life, long after her mother’s untimely death.
Her mother gives her the essential advice to never give her singing away to anyone. That is something she must keep for herself. Later in life, as Aretha’s past begins to catch up with her and threatens to take her under, it’s her mother’s presence in her heart that enables her to stabilize her life. If you weren’t already dazzled five ways from Sunday, that would pretty much seal the deal. But the film also shows the men who were key to her rise, including her husbands, her father, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
The magic of Aretha Franklin was just how well she could translate her innermost feelings outward to just about anyone. That is the miracle of her singing, and Hudson shares the same skill. But the film doesn’t shy away from how successful Franklin was with white audiences, and even the part of her story where she worked with white musicians in the Deep South, which was perhaps considered not a “good” thing to do. But she liked their groove so she went with them. This is a touchy subject in 2021 but the filmmakers bravely go there, they aren’t going to misrepresent a story of Aretha Franklin being mistreated by the white community. They absolutely want to tell a different kind of the story of a different kind of black woman in America.
Aretha Franklin could have been just one thing. A jazz/lounge singer, or a gospel singer. At some point, she realized she didn’t have to be the one thing. What she needed was someone who would believe in what it was she was trying to do. She more or less finds that person in Jerry Wexler (ably portrayed by the great Marc Maron) the music journalist turned producer who helped forster in the widespread acceptance that would help make the legend. If she hadn’t been willing to listen to her own instincts and find her unique blend of all of the things she could do — most people would barely remember her name. But look at what she did instead. Look at who she became instead.
Aretha Franklin was never satisfied with being just one thing. She was always trying to honor whatever impulses arose in her – even when she decided to stop straightening her hair and invest her time in a gospel album. The film is very much about her relationship with God as much as it is about anything. Not just because of her upbringing but because she was a deeply religious woman. That comes through beautifully in this film – they don’t try to downplay it. They celebrate it.
A few critics claim this is a “rote” biopic that doesn’t break out of the standard mold. Indeed, there are many more streamlined ways this story could have been told. Director Liesl Tommy could have left a lot out, covered a lot of ground with montage, moved it along at a quicker pace. But to me, that would have taken away what is so richly satisfying about this film.
I guess I liked Respect so much because they weren’t trying to, say, wow the National Society of Film Critics. They were instead simply telling an authentic story and telling it well. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that after being stuck at home for a year, leaning mostly on movies made prior to 1980 for salvation. You can’t ever go wrong if you tell a good story.
It sometimes feels that we’ve lost the art of storytelling in a lot of American films. I’m not really sure why. It seems other countries still have a firm grip on what it means to sit people down, give them a beginning, a middle and an end, a conflict and a resolution. These are the basics that every script needs to involve an audience. Granted, some of these traditional stories that just work for audiences haven’t worked for activists on Twitter, for example. They don’t serve the needs of a progressive eye. Or else they aren’t minimalist enough. The hive of critics, I’ve noticed, seem to prefer movies that don’t say anything overt but rather keep you guessing from frame to frame.
It is just a matter of taste, really, but nearly all of the films from the past that resonate today do so because there is a good story. It’s a story you can sum up pretty easily, like shark terrorizes town, water phobic sheriff assembles a team to out on a boat and kill the shark. Or a small-town guy who dreams of better things screws up a day in his life so badly that he thinks about killing himself. Imagining he’s dead reminds him that he really did have a wonderful life. Stories echo through time because they are well told, not necessarily because they light the critics on fire in a given year.
And here, with Respect, we have a woman who could have spent a perfectly satisfying life on the gospel circuit. She could have been a jazz singer. But instead she chose to take a chance on her own invention, her own hybrid of soul, jazz and activism to reach a far more astonishing pinnacle. A woman who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. and lived long enough to see the the first Black President, and to sing at his inauguration. That’s quite a story.
But critics see a lot of movies. They rarely have to pay to see them. Many of them feel their job isn’t necessarily to enjoy movies but to analyze them. More reliable, to my mind, is the audience and how they react to a movie. I always take the time now to look at the audience reviews. Some films aren’t made for audiences, of course, and are not as easily digested, so sometimes you see the reverse — critics loving a movie and the audiences hating it. Both of these scenarios are quite common. But for a movie like this, I think it’s more important that audiences like it than the critics. Here are some reviews from audience members on RT:
“One of the best films I have ever seen. I was delighted to see that the film included the historically accurate account of Ms. Franklin’s achieving her first hit record when she made her first recording with the musicians from Muscle Shoals, Alabama.”
“If you are an Aretha fan you will love this movie. The great background story of this remarkable woman and Jennifer Hudson definitely paid homage to the Queen with those fabulous pipes of hers, definitely Oscar-worthy performance… wow! Didn’t know much about Aretha’s beginning and this movie showed the star’s challenging rise. Wanted to hear even more of her hits but where do you draw the line. Highly recommend.”
“Glad my first time back in a theater in over a year and a half was for this movie. Jennifer Hudson was amazing as the Queen of Soul, and I learned a lot about Aretha’s backstory that I was never previously aware of. Very well done docu-pic!”
Not all of the reviews are this positive, of course, but the job of a critic is to analyze a film, as Woody Allen would say, “based on a set of aesthetic guidelines…” and an audience member just has to say whether or not they enjoyed it. Whether or not they loved it. With this movie, I think that’s going to be a pretty popular answer.
As for Ms. Hudson, she’s going to be very hard to beat come Oscar time. It’s premature to make that call, of course. We haven’t yet seen many of the actresses that will soon be headed our way. But I will say this: Jennifer Hudson’s performance is a once-in-a-lifetime dazzler.
She’s come a long way, baby.