Reel Reviews | Respect

by Charles Kirkland Jr.

Award-winning singer and actor, Jennifer Hudson takes on the life of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin in the inspired biopic, Respect.

Even as a child everyone could see that Reverend C.L.’s (Forest Whitaker) daughter, little Aretha Franklin has the goods to be a star. Even when she travels the gospel circuit with her father and the civil rights tours with Reverend Martin Luther King, her star shines brightly. So much so that her father gets her signed to a contract with Columbia Records to sing pop music like her friends, Sam Cooke and Dinah Washington. But Aretha quickly learns that her journey to “just have hits” is not an easy one with snares and traps all along the way including her father, her husband/manager Ted White (Marlon Wayans), and even herself.

The screenplay for Respect is written by Tracey Scott Wilson based upon a story she wrote with Callie Khouri. Directed by South African theater director Liesl Tommy, Respect stars Jennifer Hudson as Aretha, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Titus Burgess, Audra McDonald, Kimberly Scott, Marc Maron, and Mary J. Blige. This is the first feature film for Wilson as a writer and for Tommy as a director.

For a first-time film director, Tommy seems to possess an interesting eye for details in this film. Her ability to create atmospheric conditions that speak to the emotions in the film is quite interesting. She places young Aretha in the middle of a long street to express the dark and hopeless path of following her mother, a path from which her father has to drag her away. The scene is focused and powerful on different levels including the foreshadowing of the impact of her mother upon her career.

Tracey Scott Wilson also crafts an ingenious screenplay that chronicles the journey through the early years of the future Queen and light-handedly touches some of the issues that affected her life but drills down on the impact of major issues in her life especially her relationship with her first husband and manager, Ted White. Despite taking some creative license in a couple of situations in the movie, Wilson accurately depicts such things as the re-working of Otis Redding’s song, Respect, into the signature song of Aretha’s career.

Respect is clearly a showpiece for Jennifer Hudson who portrays the Queen of Soul convincingly and sings all of the songs in the movie. Hudson may not look like Aretha but she sounds enough like her for audiences to forget and just go along for the ride.

The surprising performance of the movie belongs to Marlon Wayans who despite having a voice that sounds like a caricature from one of his comedy shows, expertly acts the role of the untrusting, insecure and abusive husband/manager to give provide the requisite amount of sympathy for a woman dealing with her own demons.

Detractions from the movie are a couple of timelines that seem to be inconsistent and the casting of some of the minor roles. While certainly based upon the life of Franklin, there are two periods depicted that do not jive with events in her life. However, unless someone is knowledgeable of the intimate details of the career of Aretha, they could go unnoticed and the movie unaffected. Not the same thing can be said for the casting of Gilbert Glenn Brown as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Brown does not look like nor does he sound like King in any of the few scenes in which he appears. The sad part for Brown is that he not only does not live up to the legacy of King but he does not live up to any of the other actors who have portrayed the iconic civil rights leader. Titus Burgess is another ancillary character casting (playing the gospel legend, Rev. Dr. James Cleveland) that feels poorly chosen and absent of the powerful nature of the actual person.

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, strong language including fractal epithets, violence, suggestive material, and smoking, Respect is indeed a showcase for the talent of Hudson. The film is a confirmation of what the Queen of Soul saw in her that inspired her to pick Jennifer to play her before she passed away more than three years ago. Just like Aretha’s choice, the film is a perfect torch pass to the next generation of superstars.

Respect is only in theaters.

Grade: B