Respect: Aretha Franklin reinvigorated on the silver screen


Even if Aretha Franklin hadn’t personally picked Jennifer Hudson to play her in Liesl Tommy’s Respect, casting her would surely have been a no-brainer. She masters her portrayal of the Queen of Soul, making the idiosyncrasies appear instinctive and, despite having a different voice to Franklin, still electrifying the music with ease. Powerfully, Hudson also manages to capture a vulnerability which lies at the heart of this biopic: a quest for Franklin to find her own voice and wrest possession of it from the men around her.

The film begins at home in Detroit, 1952, when Franklin is awoken to sing for guests at a party thrown by her father, the prosperous pastor and renowned civil rights leader Rev C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker). Greeting black royalty in attendance as she strolls over to Art Tatum on the piano – “Hey Aunt Ella, Uncle Duke” – young Ree belts out “My Baby Likes to Bebop” with the poise of a prodigy. “She’s 10, but her voice is goin’ on 30,” someone observes. Yet her mother’s later warning, “your daddy doesn’t own your voice, Ree, nobody does but God,” immediately feels significant.

Young Aretha in these early scenes, played brilliantly by Skye Dakota Turner, is soon touring churches of the South with her father and Martin Luther King Jr. In the most cinematic passage of the film, young Aretha begins singing a hymn from the lectern of an Alabama church, with the camera panning across the congregation. Sweeping back, it lands on Hudson, an older Aretha, signalling a coming of age at the heart of the civil rights movement, yet also revealing a young woman no less vulnerable and uncertain.

Respect truly is halfway between hagiography and honesty.

Indeed, pain lurks beneath the singing but its fundamental sources – the death of Franklin’s mother just before her 11th birthday and then her rape, aged 12, by one of her father’s houseguests – are dealt with so subtly, they seem airbrushed: Respect truly is halfway between hagiography and honesty.

“She’s a black Judy Garland,” raves Franklin’s father, before having her twirl in front of the chief of Columbia Records, John Hammond, just before she is signed at the age of 18. Tommy shoots the scene so that the men’s handshake passes right in front of Franklin’s face, reinforcing the paternalistic attitude of her father, as if his daughter’s God-given gift were his own prized trophy. Echoing this conviction is her violent and abusive first husband, Ted White (Marlon Wayans), who later thrusts himself in front of documentary cameras to take credit for one of her hits.

While men argue over her, Hudson remains stirringly passive, only able to shut them up when she opens her mouth and sings. White, meanwhile, serves as the inspiration for the line “You’re a no-good heartbreaker, you’re a liar and you’re a cheat” in Franklin’s first hit, which she records with producer Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records in the legendary studio of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. “Follow me,” Franklin asserts as she strikes up a vibe with electric keyboard player Spooner Oldham. I Never Loved a Man is born before our very eyes in what is undoubtedly the greatest sequence of the film: a spell-binding insight into the almost spiritual creativity of Franklin’s arrangements. After seven years and nine albums of the smooth jazz, which Hammond mistakenly demanded of her at Columbia, Franklin finally discovers her sound: the revolutionary gospel-influenced rhythm and blues which crowned her the Queen of Soul.

We are never permitted an insight into Franklin’s mind – what she thought of her traumas, her ‘demons’, her romantic relationships, or personal ambitions.

However, this captivating behind-the-scenes portrayal contrasts with the film’s largely unremarkable drama. Through the discreet and merely factual procession through events of Franklin’s life – from childhood tragedies to the personal, professional, and political highs and lows of her adulthood – the film’s central character is ultimately deprived of the extraordinary personality glimpsed in real life. We are never permitted an insight into Franklin’s mind – what she thought of her traumas, her “demons”, her romantic relationships or personal ambitions.

Tracey Scott Wilson’s screenplay ultimately adheres to the rote rise-fall-redemption arc of so many biopics and fails to give Franklin the complexity, novelty or mettle of the real-life woman: this job is instead left to Hudson. The film ends with her recording the 1972 gospel album Amazing Grace at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church of Los Angles – Franklin’s most personal and successful work – and Hudson once again gives an inspired and virtuosic performance which very nearly conceals the film’s missing spirit.

Image Credits: Margie Lawrence via Flikr

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