The Crowning of Aretha Franklin in Humanity
As I sat in the movie theater for an early media screening of RESPECT, amongst a sea of empty seats and only four other journalists, I was intrigued by what I did not see in this film.
Yes, we witnessed the complete embodiment of Ms. Aretha Franklin by Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson – and likely why Hudson will win a second Oscar for her performance. Yes, we experienced Ms. Franklin’s music through Hudson’s powerhouse vocals, the church as a place of reprieve from civil rights struggles, even the authentically classy fashions of women and men in the 50’s and 60’s (not to mention Hudson’s 50+ wig changes).
But, what viewers won’t see in RESPECT is this: A journey to legendary music status and iconic success, paved with ease and free from the struggles “regular” people have.
Isn’t that how we typically view the life of artists and performers we adore? We buy tickets, cheer for them to “sing for us, make us happy, make us feel good!”, all without knowing what it takes for them to stand behind the mic and give thousands – even millions – what they, at times, cannot give themselves.
After seeing RESPECT, the world will never listen to Aretha Franklin’s voice again – not without knowing the cost she paid, the sacrifices made, and the faith it took to find her voice.
Let’s take a brief look.
The Childhood of Aretha Franklin
RESPECT starts where it all began, with young Aretha Franklin singing in church. We quickly see that growing up as a “PK” (Preacher’s Kid) to the pre-imminent preacher of that era and “the most imitated African-American preacher in history”, Rev. C. L. Franklin, had both its positive perks and its negative exposure.
Aretha’s home was frequented by many prominent black artists and dignitaries of her day, with regulars like Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, Sam Cooke, Dinah Washington, and Mahalia Jackson. While we can infer occasions of soulful Sunday Dinners and frequent sing-a-longs, the childhood home of Aretha Franklin was also ground zero for “other” festive occasions.
The Imperfection of “Church” Exposed
What better place to kick back, relax, and have a stiff drink (or something harder – no pun intended) than at the Pastor’s house? Huh?
RESPECT pulls zero punches on the exposure of the “party times” at Rev. Franklin’s home. Aretha Franklin grew up not only hearing the gospel preached but also hearing and watching “the saints” act in ways that weren’t conducive to biblical teaching.
Some Christian viewers will be unfazed while others will be appalled at how the film exposes the hypocrisy of those who “have decided to follow Jesus” and the impact this behavior inevitably had on Aretha Franklin.
The truth of the matter is that, although we may sing “no turning back”, some of us in the church do, some of us have.
Instead of taking issue with RESPECT for this exposure, followers of Christ can echo the truth that the “church” is the only place of healing where the “doctor” (pastor/leaders) needs the same medicine as the patients and is responsible for his/her own health (salvation).
Childhood Trauma is the Kryptonite of Our Gifts.
If there’s anything that will throw a child out of innocence and walking in the beauty of their God-given gifts, it’s child abuse – be it sexual, emotional, mental, or physical – and the loss of a mother. In RESPECT, Director Liesl Tommy and writer Tracey Scott Wilson delicately portray the abuse of young “Re” and the impact it had on the Queen of Soul’s life long-term.
Aretha Franklin Denies the Right to Give Up.
As RESPECT shifts into Ms. Franklin’s adulthood, we see the impact of troubled relationships in her marriage to Ted White (Marlon Wayans), the burden of mediocre success after multiple albums, and Ms. Franklin’s unhealthy coping mechanisms when her “demons” called.
Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige) says it best in the trailer, “Four albums, no hits.” Between years of performances and studio sessions, the film builds the fatigue and exacerbation of self-doubt, having it all – and yet nothing’s working.
At the moment when Ms. Franklin could lose it all, she draws on her faith in God – the hallmark of RESPECT. It starts in the church and ends in the church.
You Can Always Come Back to God.
Can you? From alcoholism, unhealed trauma, when folks have either written you off or know that you’ve fallen off? Is there even a God to go back to?
Yes! RESPECT gives the world a glimpse into the beauty of redemptive grace through Jesus Christ. No matter how far into the darkness Ms. Franklin drifted with her “demons”, no matter how hypocritical or “fake” Christians behaved around her while growing up, the love of God took root in her heart, and when all else failed, she believed God was still strong and mighty to save.
Sure, there are some who may disagree with the notion that you can always come back to God. Why? Partly because they’re focused on the word “always” and not the word “God.”
When you focus on “always”, verses like, “shall we continue in sin that grace may abound” (Romans 6:1) or “My Spirit shall not always strive with man…” (Genesis 6:3) come to mind.
However, when we focus on the word “God” (the Source), and the truth that He is love (1 John 4:8), we will understand this mystery as Aretha Franklin did:
God is more concerned about loving you, saving you, being with you than he is punishing you.
Now, let Team Jesus say, “Amen!”
Catch a Glimpse of Aretha Franklin’s Story on August 13th
Yes, some viewers may leave the theater asking, “And then what?” or “What about the 80’s and 90’s?” Director Liesl Tommy was very intentional not to make RESPECT a birth-to-death biopic, but to highlight the formative years of Ms. Aretha Franklin. Understandably, a single, two-hour, and 25-minute film won’t tell the whole story of Ms. Franklin’s life.
Nevertheless, RESPECT fully crowns Ms. Aretha Franklin in humanity and tells her story with compassion and a tension that keeps us rooting for her to find her voice. Audiences will leave the theater deeply moved by the struggles she overcame and how her gift from God led her back to redemption and her roots.
Cast: Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron, Tituss Burgess, Saycon Sengbloh, Hailey Kilgore, Tate Donovan, Heather Headley, Skye Dakota Turner, and Mary J. Blige.
DIRECTOR: Liesl Tommy
SCREENPLAY BY: Tracey Scott Wilson
STORY BY: Callie Khouri and Tracey Scott Wilson
PRODUCERS: Harvey Mason Jr., Scott Bernstein, p.g.a., Jonathan Glickman, Stacey Sher
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Jennifer Hudson, Liesl Tommy, Sue Baden-Powell, Aaron L. Gilbert, Jason Cloth