‘Respect’ Paints a Powerful Picture of Aretha Franklin’s Life


It’s hard to imagine a world with Aretha Franklin’s music not in it. The Queen of Soul, with her authoritative vocals and stirring lyrics, introduced anthem after anthem of love and liberation, capturing those feelings that come from experiencing the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. She was what all singers hope to be: a legend.

That’s why creating a movie about the late icon is so difficult. It’s hard to make something that truly encapsulates her genius as an entertainer while still showcasing her as an actual human being. And to the credit of Respect, written by Tracey Wilson Scott and starring Jennifer Hudson, that was never the mission. Instead, the biopic set out to answer a pivotal question: How did the musical legend find her own voice? And that, it does.  

Most biopics fail at crafting a narrative that touches on the major milestones of a subject’s life while still making it interesting enough for mass appeal. And while Respect does have its slow moments—focusing on Franklin from the impressionable age of 10 through a more distinguished age of 30—it gives a well-rounded picture of how the woman we consider a symbol of musical success rose to her coveted status.

According to Wilson, who spoke to Glamour ahead of the film’s nationwide release, Respect was not setting out to “hit the Wikipedia entry of her life,” but it does cover a quintessential stage. From a teen mom at 12 to a solidified songstress, Wilson writes Franklin as a woman, not a character, who grapples with death, abuse, motherhood, and love. Jennifer Hudson, whose own vocal prowess is one to admire,  embodies the spirit of the beloved artist in a way that lets audiences in on her often-tumultuous journey. From both a place of elation and anguish you get to see a picture of “Re” that transcends the late singer’s musical chords and delivers her as a doting mother, complicated lover, encouraging sister, and torn daughter.

Though the film’s central mission is to pay homage to the Queen of Soul, Respect is as much about the beginnings of her career as it is about the men who played a role in shaping it. Forest Whitaker, who takes on the role of Franklin’s father, the late Reverend C.L. Franklin, offers a passionate portrayal of the man whose tough love gave Franklin a solid start, but who also attempted to puppeteer his daughter’s course. And Marlon Wayans, who plays Franklin’s abusive ex-husband, Ted, offers a characterization that quickly, and appropriately, cements his position as a villain in this chapter of the entertainer’s life.

Despite the complexity of Aretha Franklin’s relationships, what will resonate with viewers is her valor in rising above their treatment, rising above her turmoil, and turning her adverse circumstances into the driving force behind some of her greatest hits. Even with its imperfect storytelling, Respect delivers powerful performances while letting us in on often-overlooked facts of the legendary singer’s life. It pictures her as a champion, and who doesn’t love a story of triumph? 

Respect is now playing in theaters.

Tanya Christian is a writer and editor based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @tanyaachristian.


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