Written by: Victoria Alexander | August 17th, 2021
Starts off too slow and do we really need all that establishing framework to a dazzling career? When Hudson takes over singing, the film is electrifying.
I keep away from early articles and advance reviews on films so as not to influence my critique. But with a bio-epic on The Queen of Soul, it is hard to ignore the publicity promoting the iconic Aretha Franklin. I just got ready for a whitewash and cleansing of Franklin’s long life. With the celebrations about Franklin’s influence and talent, I was sure it was going to be the kind of film Madonna is planning about her life: A rendering part mythical and part saint’s hagiography.
The screenwriter, Tracey Scott Wilson, presents a fully dimensional Franklin with all the cruelty, betrayal, and jealousies she endured. The film begins in 1952 in Detroit and 10 year old Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner) is already singing at her Baptist minister father’s church, Rev. C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), and his big social parties. It is a very upscale life but Aretha’s mother Barbara (Audra McDonald) has left C.L. because of his treatment of her. The care of the children is left to C.L.’s mother, (Kimberly Scott).
C.L. is a cruel and obsessive dictator in Aretha’s life. His anger, violent temper, and aristocratic demeanor rules Aretha’s life, yet when his child is raped and pregnant at 11 years old, we are not told what is done to the offender. A second child is born soon after and Aretha defies her father by not naming the father or fathers.
Why did controlling C.L. allow his child to get pregnant a second time before her fifteen birthday?
Makes a troubling thought slip through.
An aspect of Aretha’s childhood is the ever-present theme of a dark force inside her that is responsible for all her troubles and rears it’s ugly head often in her life.
Where did they find Skye Dakota Turner? I always read how difficult children actors are hard to direct. Turner is fantastic and I think she was so captivating that it was impossible to cut her scenes – hence the over two hours length.
Aretha (Jennifer Hudson) goes on gospel singing tours and C.L.’s close friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. (Gilbert Glenn Brown), takes her front and center in the civil rights movement as she travels with “Uncle Martin.”
With C.L. controlling every aspect of Aretha’s career as her manager, he allows an unfettered relationship with an unknown man. His iron rule of Aretha’s career at Columbia Records begets a lot of albums but no hits. When she defies him by coming 45 minutes late to a recording session, C.L. slaps her across the face in full review of everyone present.
There is one man that C.L. hates with a furious rage, Ted White (Marlon Wayans), who is so sexy Aretha and every female in the audience wants him. Ted starts out as a supportive husband until he replaces C.L. as her manager. Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Marin) begs Aretha to trust him and their to-the-end relationship speaks volumes regarding how Atlantic treated her.
Regarding Aretha’s long creative history with the all-white Alabama Muscle Shoals band, the filmmakers really show how these musicians crafted Aretha’s songs and it was a terrific part of the long film. Ted wanted to bring in black musicians but Aretha demands the Muscle Shoals.
Nothing is left on the sidelines: As Aretha becomes a famous hit maker, her sisters, Carolyn (Hailey Kilgore) and Erma (Saycon Sengbloh), become jealous and try to become singers themselves managed by C.L.. In a perfect scene Aretha, in full blown stardom, is furious at her family and hanger-ons. Bringing her sisters as her backup singers unite them in a rich, rewarding collaboration. Then there is Ted’s physical abuse which, when exhibited publicly and written about in a Time magazine cover story, ends their marriage.
C.L. warned Aretha about Ted as she delivers her two sons with Ted to her father’s house.
Hudson is terrific and so is Whitaker. This is his career best role. Throughout the film, he never softens his character or try to give you a reason to understand his behavior. It’s a heroic performance. Hudson does not let vanity slip into her performance, she is all in.
The director, Liesl Tommy, could have started the film with C.L. slapping Aretha. That would visually inform the audience everything about her childhood and upbringing. Tommy shows to be a strong director even with Hudson and Aretha both participating in the film’s production.
Marin and Wayans are fabulous.
It’s the end credits that really cements the emotional drive of RESPECT. It shows Aretha Franklin in one of her last performances at a piano singing, You Make me Feel Like A (Natural Woman). Aretha gets up to sing and takes off her coat, proudly showing her aged, overweight body as a glorious acknowledgement of being a natural woman.
The songs are wonderful.