Respect is the second biopic treatment given to Aretha Franklin’s life in 2021. The first, National Geographic’s Genius: Aretha starring Cynthia Erivo, was widely panned for its overwrought focus on the darker parts of Franklin’s life. It was also criticized for possibly over-embellishing (or lying) about some of Franklin’s life–her family came out against the film and boycotted it. Respect, therefore, was seen by many fans as the family’s official version of events in Franklin’s life. If that’s the case, then I wonder just how far off Genius: Aretha was because while Respect might not have as many lurid moments as its Nat Geo predecessor did, it still carried a lot of the same pain, trauma, and eventual comeuppance over treacherous men.
Jennifer Hudson loses herself in the role of Franklin, and you can see her progression into the character the more the film progresses. By the time we enter Franklin’s life after her divorce from her abusive husband and manager Ted White, Hudson has fully embraced the messiness and tragedy Franklin has carried for her much of her life. Hudson is particularly believable and compelling when Franklin is shown suffering from alcoholism. In short, playing Franklin allows Hudson fans to see she can do more than just belt a la Effie White in her Oscar-defining film Dreamgirls. She can, in fact, plumb the depths of a soul in torment and give it life.
Two people closest to giving the audience extreme pathos are two actors seen the least in the film. Broadway legend Audra McDonald plays Franklin’s mother, Barbara. Tituss Burgess, best known for his Broadway work and Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, plays gospel legend (and Franklin family friend) James Cleveland. These two characters ground Franklin the most in the film. Their grounding nature might be because they don’t seek to own her or define her by their standards.
Both Barbara and Cleveland tell Franklin not to give up her gift and share it with others. But most importantly, they ask her to share her gift with herself. As Cleveland tells her, music will save her life. And as Barbara tells her, she doesn’t have to give herself over to anyone. Both life lessons come back into play once Franklin is presented with the Herculean task of facing her childhood trauma, which includes being raped as a child and carrying the child created from that moment at only 12 years old.
Forest Whitaker is always great, and he doesn’t disappoint here as the mercurial, opaque, and oppressive Rev. C.L. Franklin, Franklin’s father. Perhaps, C.L. and his daughter are also soulmates in many ways. C.L.’s horrible example as a pastor holding juke joint-esque house parties created the foundation for Franklin to experience her trauma and, later in life, choose the similarly terrible White (interestingly played by Marlon Wayans). But at the same time, Franklin is her father’s daughter. Both show flashes of egotism, paranoia, a fierce adherence to “respectability politics” (despite Franklin’s embrace of counter-culture, militant figures like Angela Davis), and both aspire to achieve perfectionism for the sake of egoic comfort.
Are Franklin and her father’s accolades extensions of their talents, or were they achieved to give the illusion of grandeur and exceptionalism? Did they strive for more because they felt like they were nothing without greatness? Did Franklin ever want to become Aretha Franklin, or did she simply want to be loved by her family? These are the questions the film poses, and for me, the answers seem to be that while her father craved power and defined himself by what he could control, Franklin was always meant for greatness. But what Franklin’s father called “the demon”–her depression and grief from emotional and physical wounds–was his burden to bear, not his daughter’s. Instead, he divorced himself from any blame by placing it on devilish spirits. It was him who invited the “devil” into his home. As a pastor, you’d think he’d recognize the dangers of his shocking gangster lifestyle.
Respect might seem like a lighter version of Genius: Aretha since there’s more overlap between the two than I expected after the Franklin family’s outcry. But where Genius: Aretha seemed disinterested in investigating Franklin beyond what could be distilled into tabloid or Twitter fodder, Respect wanted to, indeed, respect its subject matter. Yes, it’ll make you depressed about the life Franklin lived. But, it’ll also give you a more profound love for the Queen of Soul, who managed to shine above all of the horrors and create an enduring legacy that promotes hope and perseverance.