Constrained by her God-fearing pastor father, but liberated in time by her inner spirit, RESPECT, the Aretha Franklin biopic directed by Tony award-winning Liesl Tommy, shows the complexity of the singer’s relationship with her Church and spirituality and captures her long and difficult personal journey.
It is more than clear why Aretha Franklin is known as the Queen of Soul; there are not many singers who have come close to achieving what Aretha Franklin did, nor are there many who will. However, RESPECT shows a side to the megastar that we can all relate to, a quest for freedom to be who we are.
The film shows young Aretha Franklin – Skye Dakota Turner – navigating the death of her mother Barbara –Audra McDonald – who is portrayed as a deeply loving figure. In a tender moment she tells the young Aretha: “You are worthy and don’t let any man tell you otherwise.” It shows the pain of the abuse she received as a girl, including an omitted rape, and illustrates the stifling control of her Father and their at times challenging relationship.
From the start, as you’d expect, the music comes centre-stage. Young Aretha is portrayed as having a voice that is powerful and meaningful as well as tuneful, something befitting of someone far beyond her years. When she sings, whether it’s at home by the piano or at New Bethel Baptist Church where her father preaches, the film depicts a child who is generally quiet and reserved come alive.
The award-winning Jennifer Hudson takes over to portray Aretha Franklin as an adolescent and then adult, paying perfect homage to Franklin’s powerful music, and conveys the singer’s difficulty navigating first the controlling behaviour of her father – Forest Whittaker – and later her abusive first husband Ted White – Marlon Wayans.
After Franklin gets a black eye owing to a physical fight with White, a part of the biopic which is backed up by many media accounts of their relationship, she is shown clearing out his things and kicking him out of her apartment, but then she rings him and asks him to come back. This is a harrowing and complex dynamic many people sadly know all too well, and a moment at which at least half the audience sighed.
Yet, the beauty of the film and indeed of Aretha Franklin, are her tireless efforts to take control and demand respect, beginning with her command that white men like her producer Jerry Wexler – Marc Maron – call her Miss Franklin. While different male managers, including her father in her early career, then her husband Ted White tussle with Wexler for power, the film shows Franklin’s capacity to forge her own path.
One of the strongest parts of the film is its portrayal of the fact that no route to freedom and peace is a straight line. At first the depiction of Franklin’s alcoholism, which allegedly afflicted her for large periods of her life, seemed an obvious cliché, with a stereotypical messy living room and bottles strewn across the floor. But when the film shows the adult Franklin being held by her dead mother to the sound of Amazing Grace, what it makes abundantly clear is something people tend to find hard to realise: that even at the darkest moments, when we feel most constrained and lost, hope and guidance from within can surprise us.
Aretha Franklin’s quest for personal freedom is mirrored by that of the civil rights movement cause she stood tirelessly for. The film highlights just how much the gospel music of Black churches is a communal act, with scenes of the whole Church singing together in weekly praise and prayer and later, in mourning, when Martin Luther King Jr, who was a close friend of Aretha Franklin’s father Rev Clarence LeVaughan Franklin, is shot. There is also a nod to the intellectual and activist Angela Davis, who Aretha Franklin offered to post bail for when she was arrested.
At one point Franklin’s father tells her: “You no longer walk in the spirit.” In the end, while her relationship with her pastor father is strained, her personal relationship with God reigns strong even if it isn’t always obvious to her. We see that when she performs live from her best-selling gospel album Amazing Grace at New Bethel Baptist Church itself.
RESPECT will be released in UK cinemas from 10th September 2021.