Movies · Reviews

Jennifer Hudson Shines as Aretha Franklin in ‘Respect’

Tony-nominated stage director Liesl Tommy makes her feature film debut with a powerful portrait of the Queen of Soul.
Aretha Franklin Respect Biopic Jennifer Hudson
MGM
By  · Published on August 9th, 2021

I am naturally skeptical of biopics. Many are bad. Even more of them are hagiography. And the few good ones often succeed in spite of poor direction. Those are saved by a performance or two plus the sentimental memories they evoke in the audience. But that is not the case with Respect, the new biographical drama based on the life of Aretha Franklin. The film is a true achievement. One that envelopes the viewer in the triumphs, the violence, the trauma, and the genius of one of the greatest artists who ever lived.

Let me say one more thing about my feelings on biopics before I get to the meat of my review. I am especially uncertain of those that attempt too much. The sort that starts with the subject in their youth and spends more than two hours grasping for throughlines of their entire life and work. When I saw that Respect opens with newcomer Skye Dakota Turner as young Aretha, or “Ree,” my skepticism began to flow. But then Turner began to sing and act, and the story itself unfolded. It became clear to me why no telling of Franklin’s life could be complete without the religious, political, and musical inspirations — and the emotional and physical abuse — that were all so central to her childhood in Detroit.

In the depiction of those early years, the young prodigy’s musical talents are nurtured by her father, C. L. (Forest Whitaker), a well-known Baptist minister, Civil Rights leader, and friend of Martin Luther King Jr. (Gilbert Glenn Brown). In the first scene, C. L. wakes Ree and asks if she’d like to sing a song for the guests of his dinner party. Eager to perform, she quickly agrees. As she makes her way to the piano, we see why she is so excited. Their home is full of some of the greatest artists of the period, all of whom are friends with C.L. We hear Ree say hello to “Uncle Duke,” presumably Duke Ellington, and receive praise from one of her heroes, Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige).

That opening is a kind of a red herring. By showing the life of young Aretha, director Liesl Tommy and screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson seem to want us to think, “Wow, how lucky could one be to grow up surrounded by these icons?” But we soon learn that despite her proximity to musical genius, the emotional and physical abuse Aretha faced at the hands of those closest to her placed more obstacles in her way than many could endure.

Turner, of course, is only one of two performers who portray Aretha Franklin in Respect. Academy-Award winner Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls) will, deservedly, garner the most attention for her performance, but I would be remiss if I did not say that both actresses master their respective share of the role. If not for Turner’s gripping twenty or so minutes, Hudson would not shine in the way that she does in the rest of the movie.

Aretha Frankin’s faith bookends Respect. Turner’s Ree grows into Hudson’s Aretha in a single shot as she sings before her father’s congregation at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. The movie then takes us through the events of the singer’s life up until 1972, when she, at age twenty-nine and at the height of her fame, returned to her roots and recorded the live album Amazing Grace, which became the best-selling of her career.

Throughout Respect, Aretha grapples with the demons of her past, including the death of her mother, Barbara (Audra McDonald), when she is only twelve years old. So much of the movie deals with control. Aretha trying to control her demons. Men trying to control Aretha’s life and music. Aretha fighting to take back control. Viewers of the movie should be prepared for violence. When Aretha attempts to direct her career, the men in her life respond with abuse. Namely Aretha’s first two managers: her father and her first husband, Ted White (Marlon Wayans). The latter is particularly brutal and menacing.

Ted is unable to control Aretha as her fame grows. His rage and jealousy become stronger. And he retaliates not only with violence but by leveraging the threat of violence to force Aretha to take his advice over other professionals in her life. Such as producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron). Where Ted is unable to control Aretha, however, is when she is behind the piano or on stage. It is there where the genius comes through.

I walked into Respect expecting to be enthralled by the music, and Hudson does not disappoint. I walked out of the screening thinking about embodiment. Not only does Hudson embody the essence of Aretha Franklin’s virtuosity, but her performance makes clear the way that Franklin embodied her own music. Unlike other, less successful biopics, Respect is not a string of performances tied together by a few scenes in between. The musical numbers are carefully woven into the narrative of Aretha’s life, in a way that it would be impossible to separate one from the other.

Many of the verbal and visual cliches we have come to expect from biopics do run through Respect. While criticisms of their use are fair, they do not in any way diminish the movie for me. The performances are so strong, I focused less on what the characters said and more on how they said it. Whittaker, Wayans, and McDonald — the last of whom does not get nearly enough screen time — are particularly strong in that regard.

But the standout of the movie is definitely Hudson, who acts nearly as well as she sings. The duality of her performance is what makes it so moving. Hudson manages to capture the essence of the Queen of Soul — and the qualities that make her an icon of all kinds of music — without sacrificing her painfully human struggles with addiction, abuse, and grief.

I was so captivated by Respect that I only jotted down a few notes during the screening. Here’s one: “shots of crowds.” As Aretha sings, the movie often cuts to the diegetic audience. When Aretha sings in church, we see the congregation. When she sings at Madison Square Garden, we see the faces of the fans whom she moved with her work. It’s a subtle touch that makes Respect a movie not only about the life and work of Aretha Franklin but the impact she had — and continues to have — on so many of us.

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Will DiGravio began writing for Film School Rejects in 2018. He also hosts The Video Essay Podcast and owns a TV.