Every talented person, before becoming an international star, goes through an internal struggle, fighting their own demons and family issues which we sometimes are not aware of. We don’t have to go far to search for examples like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Judy Garland and Britney Spears. It’s a matter of fighting back, letting himself or herself say – enough is enough. Because without self-respect, nothing can be gained in this life. While the above-mentioned talents, one way or another, broke free, Aretha Franklin had to do it in the only way possible – through respect.
Screenplay by Tracy Scott Wilson and directed by Liesl Tommy, “Respect” chronicles the life of American singer, songwriter and pianist, mostly referred to as the “Queen of Soul”, Aretha Franklin (Jennifer Hudson). From the age of eight to stardom, the film captures the most defining moments of her life, starting as a child gospel singer to becoming a multi-Grammy award winner. All that occurs during her abusive marriage with Ted White (Marlon Wayans), troubling relationship with her father, the loss of her mother, and four children she will give birth to throughout her young age.
“Respect” is a type of film you can’t dislike, whether you know Aretha Franklin or not. As a little girl, we find her incredibly talented. Her father, C. L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), is a famous preacher. Set in Detroit, it captures, even for a brief moment, the most soulful and touching connection between little Aretha and her mother Barbara (Audra McDonald). It is the appearance of Audra McDonald that will disappoint you the most – because it was too short for someone of her caliber. Her sweetness and portrayal of Barbara was so beautiful and deeply moving, you would wish to have more of her than what was, unfortunately, offered to us.
There are many nuances the film avoids touching, and one of them is Aretha Franklin’s first son, Clarence or how did it happen that she gave birth to a second one. The film suggests that Aretha was sexually abused at a young age but never provides insight into her first two children’s father. At some point, the film captures one particular scene, showing a traumatized Aretha when she is in bed with her second husband. The moment when he tried to console her and calm her down, got a punch into his nose in return. But that scene was enough to figure out the enormous amount of pain Franklin fought on the inside.
All that still does not take the majority part of the film, as it continues to focus on Franklin’s career, how she was intimidated by her husband, Ted White, her collaboration with Columbia Records and later on, with Atlantic. While for the world she was the most beautiful singer with a voice of her own, behind the curtains, Franklin fights for respect which she begins to earn when she develops a voice that can be loud enough to be heard by those who thought she, like every other woman, has no right to talk.
As for the performances, Jennifer Hudson delivers a subtle performance embodying the musical icon, capturing what it meant to be Aretha Franklin. Marlon Wayans surprises us with his transformative performance. Forest Whitaker is great as usual. But as I mentioned earlier, it’s Audra McDonald that owns the large portion of the film, whether she appears briefly or is just being mentioned. Through her portrayal of Barbara Franklin, and the way she says to Aretha, “If you ever don’t want to sing. Don’t. Your father does not own your voice”, is powerful enough to send a message to everybody who is being intimidated by power-hungry individuals.
To conclude, “Respect” is a well-executed biopic with some questions left unanswered. But all that seems to be intentional, or just being politically correct. It still delivers a powerhouse performance, a strong narrative, colorful atmosphere and a dark theme. But it’s the music of Aretha Franklin and the beautiful voice of Jennifer Hudson that makes this film unforgettable. And the biggest credit should go to Aretha Franklin, who gets a well-deserved biopic, with an actress she personally hand-picked, that was literally the only one to get close to what Hudson did – to give the world a sense of Franklin’s greatness and why her stardom, talent, music and artistry will never fade away.