Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson about the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect.
Smooshing an epic life into a two-hour runtime is an unforgiving task. Try taking an icon like Aretha Franklin, a person celebrated across the globe for generations, and craft a narrative that captures her essence and power while also celebrating the hits and acknowledging the pain that produced them. Respect has a narrow bridge to cross, and below it are countless folks who know how her story should be told and are ready to scream if the filmmakers falter.
Containing a human within a film requires strategy. For Respect, screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson took a section of Franklin’s life to obsess over: years between ten and thirty. It’s a tight two-decade period. Franklin trickily ascends professionally while navigating complicated familial and romantic relationships and climaxes with her rejuvenating Amazing Grace performance. With a spine to populate, Wilson felt relief.
Respect is an impressive achievement. The film wraps its audience in Franklin’s triumph and trauma, using both extremes to highlight the musician’s genius. As a title, Respect focuses on more than the artist’s most recognizable hit; it emblazons the war she fought during those crucial twenty years. She broke free from her father, battled her way inside the music industry, found love, fought love, and discovered new love — self-love.
Wilson latched herself to the song, to the word, and to the idea. She listened to Franklin belt out “Respect” over and over and over again. While writing; and when she was puttering about her day. The song meant one thing before she started this journey with Aretha Franklin, and then it became something totally different afterward.
“You can’t do any show about Aretha Franklin without including her most iconic song,” Wilson says. “What we learned during the research, and what was really helpful in terms of the narrative structure for the film, was that when she sang that song, she was in an abusive relationship [with Ted White]. And she still had a very contentious relationship with her father. She was singing about respect before she had it in her own life.”
The song did not originate with Aretha Franklin. “Respect” was Otis Redding’s tune, written and performed by him to great success. But Franklin absorbed “Respect” into her being; she reworked it to fit her voice and attitude. Then, the song reworked her.
“It’s almost like singing that song helped her bring it forth in her life,” Wilson continues. “But it took her a while to realize what the lyrics meant. It was almost as if her spirit, or her soul, was crying out for it before she had words to articulate it. She was able to sing, ‘This is what I want. This is what I’m not getting.’ And then she actually declared it later on. That is just a really nice narrative structure to lay this film on.”
When it came time to write the scene involving the reconstruction of Redding’s classic, Wilson trapped the three Franklin sisters — Aretha, Erma, and Carolyn (Jennifer Hudson, Saycon Sengbloh, and Hailey Kilgore) around a piano. The scene simmers late at night or early in the morning. The three women are exhausted, but as Aretha clacks the keys, an energy fills the room. The sisters pull together, and Redding’s song disappears, and all that’s left is Aretha’s anthem.
“It was about putting it at an emotional time in her life where she needed to sing that song,” says Wilson. “Knowing that her sisters were such a key to her self-esteem, to her strength, to her getting away from Ted White — they needed to be there. Plus, her sisters would call her ‘Ree-Ree,’ and with that name being hidden in there with the “re re re re re” [refrain], the scene just came together.”
While writing Respect, Tracey Scott Wilson worked with music producers Jason Michael Webb and Stephen Bray to understand a song’s assembly. They taught her how to follow the breadcrumbs, track a song’s trajectory, showcasing how “Respect” could have been constructed in the room with the three sisters riffing. Together, Wilson, Webb, and Bray married the emotional with the technical. And this education reawakened Wilson’s affection for Aretha Franklin’s music.
“I really grew to appreciate her voice,” says Wilson. “What she did musically, and what she changed, musically. She changed R&B. She took it a step further than Ray Charles did. I started to appreciate her jazz recordings and how extraordinary her voice was. If those had come out ten years earlier, she would have been a very different artist. She might’ve just become the next Dinah Washington. But because she was in the middle of that, she was able to take [her music] somewhere else.”
While Wilson found bliss in imagining Franklin’s glory with “Respect,” she struggled to understand her complicated love affair with Ted White. Wilson couldn’t wrap her head around what kept them together. Why couldn’t Franklin pull away sooner?
“I only had a very short period of time to show the sexiness and the fun,” she explains. “The fun and the why she would fall for this guy and try to figure out how to do it in a succinct way. That was the hardest thing to do, because initially, I’m looking at Ted as this guy who hurt Aretha, and I just wanted to portray him in a very black-and-white way. But that would not have worked, and that’s not the truth of their relationship. It took a couple of swings to get to that.”
Blocked mentally, Wilson required an instrument to shatter her cliched perception. The necessary tool belonged to another story, with another set of characters. The Criterion Collection was there to help.
“When I get stuck on things, I read screenplays, or I watch movies,” says Wilson. “I watched this movie called Claudine with James Earl Jones and Diahann Carroll. It’s a ’70s movie about this garbageman who falls in love with Carroll’s character. It’s a simple movie, and it’s just a love story set within the politics of the time. James Earl Jones plays a very flawed character, but he’s really charming, and he’s really funny. He’s really sexy. I just kept watching that, and slowly a new image of Ted White emerged.”
Submerging herself in Aretha Franklin’s life has forever altered Wilson’s understanding of the icon. She listened to her music until she couldn’t stand it anymore. And when it came time for rewrites, she would listen to other artists to create a distance between the legend and the person. At some point, you have to let your fandom fall away. As impossible as that can sometimes be.
“The word ‘genius’ actually really does apply to Aretha,” says Wilson. “There’s no reason why she was even more talented than her siblings. They all grew up around musical royalty, with the same influences. But Aretha, within an extremely talented family, rose above.”
You don’t write an Aretha Franklin biopic without already being a little in love with Aretha Franklin. Tracey Scott Wilson adored the singer before, but after months of reconstructing those years between ten and thirty, the Respect screenwriter found the human behind that adoration. Aretha Franklin surprised Wilson, and challenged her, and forever altered her perception of the musician. The hope is that Wilson’s experience will now transfer to the audience.
Respect opens in theaters nationwide on August 13th.