‘Respect’: Jennifer Hudson Is Radiant in Aretha Franklin Biopic

Grammy and Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson transforms into powerhouse Aretha Franklin in “Respect.” Hudson, whose winning seventh place on “American Idol” led to a recording career and the role in the film version of “Dreamgirls” that earned her an Academy Award, has been a supporting player for most of her acting career, and now the spotlight shines brightly on her as the Queen of Soul. Before her death in 2018, Franklin, who was involved in the early stages of development of “Respect,” personally selected Hudson to portray her, and the singer-actor does her proud here as she not only channels Franklin’s charisma, but also her very human side.

Hudson, who does her own vocals, shares the role with another gifted actress and singer, Skye Dakota Turner, who plays young Aretha. The film begins in 1952, when Aretha is living in Detroit with her pastor father, C.L. (Forest Whitaker), her grandmother (Kimberly Scott), and her siblings. The Franklins live a comfortable life, and charismatic C.L., whose vibrant sermons have earned him the nickname “Million Dollar Voice,” regularly hosts swanky house parties that attract the likes of Sam Cooke (Kelvin Hair) and Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige). He would often trot out young Aretha to sing for his guests and his congregants, later taking her on tour with him to Black churches around the country. A civil rights activist, Rev. Franklin is shown here as being a close friend and associate of Martin Luther King’s (Gilbert Glenn Brown). What most people might not realize was that Franklin was herself a passionate civil rights activist, and director Liesl Tommy explores this part of her life that has been eclipsed by her music career. MLK Jr. is shown here as being a mentor to her, and, later, she offers to post bail for activist Angela Davis.

One thing missing from Aretha’s early life is the steady presence of her mother, Barbara (Audra McDonald). Estranged from C.L., Barbara, herself a musician, has infrequent visits with her children, and her influence has a lasting impact on Aretha. Unlike the series “Genius: Aretha,” “Respect” doesn’t dwell too much on the dysfunctional side of the Franklin family, but there’s no avoiding Aretha’s loss of innocence that occurs when she is raped as a child by a friend of her father’s, resulting in two underage pregnancies, the first one at age 12. Franklin herself mostly avoided talking about her childhood sexual abuse, at least in public, so it’s understandable why Tommy doesn’t dig too deep into this part of her life, but a fleeting image of Turner with a pregnant belly is very jarring and impactful.

The plot picks up once Aretha enters young adulthood, and her father helps her land a record deal at Columbia, where she is paired with slick producer John Hammond (Tate Donovan). On the outside, this might seem like a dream, but Hudson and Tommy show how her being trapped in a patriarchal, restrictive system causes her to suffer as an artist. Further complicating things is the fact that C.L. seems to have something to prove, and pushes for his daughter to be packaged as a Black Judy Garland. The relationship between father and daughter is summed up in an emotional scene in which Aretha, after a bout of depression, shows up late to the studio, and instead of showing concern for her, C.L. apologizes to Hammond, explaining that her behavior isn’t a reflection of her upbringing or her race. It’s a lot of pressure, and none of her efforts at Columbia lead to a hit.

Enter Ted White. Marlon Wayans shows off his range and is almost unrecognizable as this deadly serious music manager. Known for beating up club owners who don’t pay up, his bad boy demeanor initially attracts Aretha. Although he gets her out from under her father’s thumb and helps her develop as an artist, it soon becomes apparent that she has merely traded one controlling man for another. The credit for helping her embrace her soulful side also goes to less-polished producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron). Hudson and Maron are great together, even funny, as Aretha and Jerry push each other out of their respective comfort zones. 

Finally, Aretha achieves fame, but as is often the case in these stories, living under a microscope only amplifies many of her struggles, and she reaches a turning point after her abusive marriage becomes public knowledge. Hudson and Tommy do a beautiful job of showing how the stage was mostly a safe haven for Aretha, and Hudson does an excellent job of channeling Franklin’s strength and star power. However, as her star rises, her drinking increases, and performing becomes more and more of an obligation.

“Respect” contains some cheesy lines that are typical in conventional music biopics. Rev. James Cleveland (Titus Burgess), a mentor of Aretha’s, says something about music being one’s salvation, and as corny as this may sound, it proves to be the truth for Franklin. Even after she divorces Ted and pairs up with a more loving, supportive man, her tour manager Ken Cunningham (Albert Jones), she cannot escape her demons. It’s not until she takes her career into her own hands by producing a gospel album that she finally finds her own voice.

Tommy does right to end Franklin’s story where she does, on a hopeful note, during the 1972 recording of her live album “Amazing Grace.” The performance takes place in a setting in which she feels most grounded and at home, at a church. It’s a stunning moment, because while Aretha was already a superstar at this point, it almost feels like she truly becomes who she was meant to become at this turning point in her life and career. Likewise, “Respect” is sure to be remembered as a pivotal moment in Hudson’s career, and another Oscar win could be next.

Respect” releases Aug. 13 in theaters nationwide.