To expand upon my quick thoughts in the video, Respect is a semi-biographical musical drama film directed by Liesl Tommy, in her feature directorial debut, and stars Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron, Tituss Burgess, and Mary J. Blige. Based on the life of American singer Aretha Franklin, the film follows the first two decades of Franklin’s life, from her beginnings singing at her father, Baptist minister, and civil rights activist, C. L. Franklin’s church, her arduous rise to international musical stardom, her abusive marriage and alcoholism, to the recording of her critically and commercially successful live album, Amazing Grace.
Respect does a great job of giving you a lot of information about Aretha and her family. Growing up in a wealthy Black household, her life could’ve been considered better than most but the film makes a poignant choice to show horrible things can still happen no matter what your class is. Many touchy subjects in life are hard to maneuver around in film. At a young age, we learned that Aretha was raped by the father of her first child and it is a heartbreaking revelation. While the film steers away from showing any graphic assault, it does detail how this encounter changed Aretha. After this moment happened she became withdrawn and her family sadly ignored the situation keeping her pregnancy hidden. The film also does a great job showcasing her relationship with her father, C. L. Franklin. We see how he travels around the country preaching as well as his connections to the civil rights movement and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They also show how much her father liked to throw parties, drink, and sleep around. Aretha spending most of her time with him made her want to do what she felt he wanted from her.
Later we see Aretha struggling at the beginning of her music career and make a name for herself and do something different. In the beginning, she did covers of other people’s songs and her original music was lackluster. Eventually, an old family friend explains to her that she is not being true to herself. This is the turning point of the film because the audience reaches this realization at the same point as Aretha. She has spent her life trying to please other people and has not focused on herself. One of the best things about this film is the subject of duality. When people die, what light do we paint them in? Do we remember them for all the great things they did for the bad things? Aretha’s father was one of these men and since he was basically the one who raised her and got her into the music business she picked up a lot of his treats. The development and change of their relationship across decades is the heart of this film and an important aspect of Aretha’s growth.
Respect boasts an all-star cast with everybody turning into terrific performances. Jennifer Hudson is great as Aretha Franklin. She sings the songs, does the dancing, and truly embodies a young Aretha. Later in the film however her performance starts to falter. As Aretha gets older it’s almost as if Hudson didn’t quite know how to in the mindset of her dark days of alcoholism and abuse. This could be an issue with the writing as the actors can only do so much with the script. Forest Whitaker is also great C. L. Franklin and he’s a character you hate and love equally. He does so many great things for Aretha and her sisters. He keeps them in a nice home and teaches them how to do things respectfully but at the same time, we see how he treats women and other people he deems not good enough. The duality of this character is something I wish we could’ve explored more and something that was explored more in the television series Genius: Aretha.
I wouldn’t say this is the best performance of the film but one I took away really enjoy with Marlon Wayans as Aretha’s husband Ted White. Wayans is known more for his comedy than anything and has had very few dramatic roles but here he keeps up with the other seasoned actors with no issue. He seemed very believable as Ted. He’s physical and raw and never messes up his accent. It would be nice to see him take more roles like this. Back to the duality of characters, Ted is another great example of this. He is shown to love Aretha and treats her very well in the beginning but then you see his dark side where he is abusive. He even mentions that this is something that he saw growing up mirroring aspects Aretha picked up from her father.
Of course, as a film centered around a musician the music in this film is phenomenal to hear. Watching Aretha create some of the music and hear all the gospel songs is a highlight for a Southern Baptist person like myself. The needle drops are appropriate and not overused as other films tend to do. Usually during the scenes where she is figuring out music the camera stays focused on her, placing her in the middle of the image, while those around her help fill in the background. This is a good decision by the cinematographer to show the audience who the focus should always be on.
The dialogue in the film does feel a bit stilted as characters deliver lines that feel emotionless. There are big moments in Aretha’s career that don’t hold as much weight as they should. The scene where she and her sisters come up with her version of “Respect” doesn’t feel like a big moment in the film. There is not enough dramatic presence to them uttering the words R-E-S-P-E-C-T as there should be. Music is one of the best things about the Black culture and the process of creating new sounds and beats felt misplaced in this film. Most of this is due to the writing and the runtime. The film is a little longer than it should be and the timing isn’t always smooth.
Respect is not the next Ray but it does offer a deep exploration into the early life and career of Aretha Franklin. I give Respect a Solid 6.7/10. Unfortunately, this film suffered from a poor release schedule due to complications from the COVID-19 pandemic. For a better more in-depth understanding of Aretha Franklin’s career, I recommend watching Genius: Aretha.