Respect: Aretha Franklin’s cinematic story comes to life. And, yes, Jennifer Hudson is that good

Respect Film Review - Jennifer Hudson

Respect

4 out of 5 stars – ‘Highly Recommended’
Directed by Liesl Tommy
Written by Tracey Scott Wilson (screenplay) and Callie Khourie (story)
Starring Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker and Audra McDonald
2021 | PG-13 | 2h25min

The cinematic story of Aretha Franklin’s musical journey was years in the making. Back in 2011 the queen of soul announced in a television interview with Wendy Williams, that she had a particular actress in mind for the film version of her life; and that actress was Halle Berry. Berry was not keen to embrace the role, primarily because she could not sing.

Years later, Franklin chose singer and actress Jennifer Hudson, a long-time fan of Aretha. Initially overcome with doubt, Hudson agreed and then rose to the challenge by digging deeply into her own troubled life for inspiration.

The recently released film Respect is the result of a skilled and professional collaboration between singer Jennifer Hudson, director Liesl Tommy, and writer Tracey Scott Wilson with an assist on story from Callie Khouri. The movie was completed in 2020; Aretha died in 2018.

In this film, the millions who have loved Aretha’s music from the moment she began to record a mixture of jazz, blues and gospel are introduced to her remarkable childhood as the daughter of an esteemed Baptist minister in Detroit, at a time when Protestant ministers were the mainstay of the civil rights movement.

Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin in ‘Respect’.

Forest Whitaker embraces the role of Rev. C. L. Franklin in a stirring performance, bringing to life the power of spiritual services designed to heal and uplift those who bore the brunt of racism in their daily lives. It may be that not since the film version of James Baldwin’s 1953 debut novel “Go Tell It On The Mountain” has such emotion been portrayed realistically on the screen.

Broadway legend Audra McDonald portrays gifted singer Barbara Franklin, the mother of Aretha. The untimely death of her beloved mother forever marked the young girl; and the memory of her mother helped Aretha to salvage her life.

Those who have seen the 1972 documentary about the recording of her Amazing Grace album recall the long-time spiritual closeness of Aretha and gospel mentor Rev. James Cleveland. Recall how he held her hand as she began to sing the title song, and then how he had to sit down and cover his face with a handkerchief, visibly overcome with emotion. This mentor role is portrayed ably by singer and actor Tituss Burgess. At one point Rev. Cleveland says to her, don’t let anything come between you and music.
Music will save your life.

Oh yes, the music is powerful and perfect because Jennifer Hudson did her homework and dug deeply to portray Aretha in distinctly different phases of her life, as she slowly and painfully broke free of male domination

Marlon Wayans is captivating as the bad boy first husband, Ted White, and who could resist him? Mary J. Blige has a star turn as music diva Dinah Washington, one of many famous guests who attended glamorous parties hosted by Rev. C. L. Franklin in his mansion. Kimberly Scott radiates love and acceptance in the Detroit household as Mama Franklin, who embraces the minister’s children as well as the children Aretha later bears. Heather Headley impresses as singer Clara Ward, of the gospel group the Ward Singers, who becomes Rev. Franklin’s long-term and long-suffering companion after his divorce from Aretha’s mother.

Oh yes, the music is powerful and perfect because Jennifer Hudson did her homework and dug deeply to portray Aretha in distinctly
different phases of her life, as she slowly and painfully broke free of male domination — the man who violated her as a child, then the influence of her domineering father, then mistreatment by her abusive first husband.

WATCH: RESPECT | Official Trailer | MGM Studios

From a shy minister’s daughter to a polished singer on world tours, Aretha had to overcome significant challenges. Learning forgiveness and understanding of her unique talent, she rose to unprecedented heights and inspired so many others.

Aretha Franklin won 18 Grammys for her music. At age 52, she was the youngest person to receive Kennedy Center honors in Washington DC. In 2019 she received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in recognition of her contributions to American music.

There will continue to be tedious arguments about why some scenes in the movie were presented with subtlety and sensitivity, instead of blood and gore, but this reviewer applauds the professionalism and the respect both Hudson and the director exhibited toward the intensely private subject of their film.

Besides appreciating the incredible music, viewers will experience simple joy as they see the remarkable and talented Aretha come into her own. I can’t wait to buy the soundtrack; Jennifer Hudson is that good.

Respect is showing in movie houses for several weeks. United Artists (MGM) has not yet announced streaming plans.

Jeanne is a published poet and essayist. She holds degrees from Wayne State University and the University of San Francisco. Jeanne has taught in the CS, UB and OLLI programs at universities in the City. Her books in print include MY OWN SILENCE and WORD DANCING from Taurean Horn Press.
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