I’ve thought about Respect often since I saw it in early July, its staying power a testament to the complexity of its narrative and the talent of the artists on and behind the screen.
In the first scene of the Aretha Franklin biopic, a 10-year-old Aretha is roused in the night by her father (portrayed by Forest Whitaker). He wants her to sing for his party guests — members of a lively Black community of high social stature, to which he, a prominent pastor and civil rights activist in 1952 Detroit, belongs. Aretha is a parlor trick, but she seems unaware of it. Her mother, though, no longer in a relationship with her father (and played, although briefly, memorably by the great Broadway legend Audra McDonald), sees what Aretha doesn’t.
“If you ever don’t want to sing,” she tells Aretha, “don’t. Your daddy don’t own your voice. Nobody does but God.”
Her words, as well as the look she exchanges with Aretha’s father when she stops by his house to pick up her kids, appear to suggest that she knows something about being owned — if not by Aretha’s father, then by other men. That danger, of ownership, of patriarchy, slithers throughout Respect: From the rape Aretha suffers during one of her father’s parties, to her father’s order that she break her grief-fueled silence to sing at church (both incidents of her childhood), to her husband’s snatching the reins of her burgeoning career from her father, to the desires of the Atlantic Records executive who manages her contract, Aretha’s voice is repeatedly curtailed, her desires opposed.
Crafted by an all-women director and story team — Tony Award nominee Liesl Tommy (Ruined) in the director’s chair, and Peabody winner Tracey Scott Wilson (The Americans) screenwriting a story approach she co-arranged with the Oscar winner Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise) — Respect culminates with Aretha’s recording of her gospel album Amazing Grace. It’s Aretha’s choice to return to the pulpit, and yet the church is not free of patriarchy. Throughout the film, God is mentioned as “Father,” as “He.” Even the sound of “hymn” is a reminder of that burden. The film doesn’t examine this complexity, but its presence speaks nevertheless, and what it all means is unclear to me. As Anton Chekhov famously wrote, “The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.”
What is clear is why the real-life “Queen of Soul” chose Jennifer Hudson to portray her in Respect. Listen to Franklin’s recording of “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)” and you’ll hear how similar her and Hudson’s singing voices are. Hudson is undoubtedly one of the strongest singers of her generation, just as Franklin was in her own time.
Pair that with Hudson’s Oscar-winning acting skills and I’m almost certain Hudson is on her way to another acting nomination from the Academy Awards, if not an additional nomination for the song “Here I Am (Singing My Way Home),” which was co-written by Carole King and Jamie Hartman for the film. Respect isn’t perfect. Sometimes the writing is too on the nose and the dialogue too theatrical. But the cast makes up for it: Hudson’s performance — with its magnetism and heft — is complemented by the talent of Mary J. Blige, Titus Burgess, and Marlon Wayans. Don’t expect the latter two stars to be comedic, as they are more known to be. Burgess portrays the Grammy-winning “King of Gospel” Rev. James Cleveland, and Wayans Ms. Franklin’s first husband, Ted White.
Respect is a must-see work, moving in its revelation of a superstar whose glow many of us have seen, the shadows surrounding them more hidden from view. Ms. Franklin was not just an incredible singer but also a civil rights activist like her father (in the film, a young-adult Aretha calls Martin Luther King Jr. “Uncle Martin” as she begs to go on tour with him and her father). Later, when she learns that King has been shot, is dead, we feel the tumult of the political scene — the backlash of Black Americans’ desire for agency — close in on her personal and professional struggles.
And yet: “We must honor the gifts God has given us, ‘Re’,” Cleveland tells her early in her journey.
What she decides to do with them is unforgettable.