by Landon Johnson 15 August, 2021
Jennifer Hudson joins the ranks of Renee Zellweger (Judy) and Andra Day (The United States vs. Billie Holiday) as she pays homage to the Queen of Soul in Tony-Award winning director Liesl Tommy’s feature debut, Respect.
Aretha Franklin defined an era in American music. Her hit songs “Respect” and “Natural Woman” are not only still played but also continue to influence culture today. These songs were more than hits. They’re anthems. They defined Soul music--which is a conglomeration of gospel and jazz that highlights Black culture and the Black experience in America-- and helped provide respite and pride during the Civil Rights Movement.
Like most biopics, Tommy gives audiences a glimpse of the icon’s early life. She shows us young Aretha’s (Skye Dakota Turner) experience as a preacher’s daughter and a child of color in the South in the 40s & 50s. The influence of the church and gospel does not go unnoticed when portraying how Aretha found her unique voice.
Tommy does a spectacular job of showing Franklin’s creative and activist influences growing up, including her relationship to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Or “Uncle Martin,” as she refers to him in the film played by a rather a perfectly cast Gilbert Glenn Brown.
Her father, Rev C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker) was a well-known preacher who was close with King and many other icons.
In fact, the opening sequence has her father waking her up from sleep to come down and entertain guests at his home like Duke Wellington, Smokey Robinson, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige) to name a few.
From a deep dive into Aretha’s complex and often tense relationship with her father, to a vague scene that leads us to believe that Aretha may have been sexually assaulted as a child by a friend of the family, to her older years highlighting her abusive relationship with Ted White (Marlon Wayans) and alcohol, and her rocky journey to stardom while balancing chaotic home life and one of prolific artistic expression and activism, Tommy leaves no stone unturned.
Many people only identify Franklin for her prolific music career, but she was also a stark activist. Not only did she sing and show up at King’s fundraisers. But she was also very outspoken in favor of activist Angela Davis when Davis was arrested in 1970. This story particularly resonates now as Black Lives Matter Movement continues, which is why Respect is more than a biopic. It’s a tribute to Franklin’s overall influence on culture as we know it today.
Hudson is transformative as the Queen of Soul. Franklin selected the Grammy-winning singer to play her before she passed in 2018. A role that Hudson claims she was born to play. The Oscar-winning actress gives her all to emulate the mannerisms and performances of her idol and executes it in such a way that it’s likely to earn respect from the Academy.
Wayans also stood out as abusive and arrogant Ted White. He really leans into the anger, insecurities, and “demons” of Franklin’s first husband in a way that spectacularly showcases his verisimilitude.
Respect is full of song, soul, and subsistence. Audiences will be equally parts entertained, moved, intrigued, and inspired as they see how the complexities behind the scenes of Queen of Soul were beyond worthy of respect.
Respect hits theaters August 13th, and this is one show you don’t want to miss.