Movie Review – Respect (2021)
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Aretha Franklin was known as the “Queen of Soul.” She started off singing in the church and rose to prominence in the 1960’s and 70’s, becoming one of the best-selling artists of all time and one of the most influential vocalists in music. She had numerous hit songs. She won 18 Grammy Awards. She became the first female performer entered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She won the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She performed at President Barack Obama’s inauguration and was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize. She was a legend and an icon. She was born in 1942 and died in 2018. A Homegoing Service was held that month, which featured tributes from various celebrities and singers, including Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson. This was after Hudson was personally chosen by Franklin to play her in this film. The following year, it was announced that National Geographic would do a TV series about Franklin in which Franklin wasn’t involved.
Biography films about famous musicians is a genre in and of itself. Like with other genres, there are a lot of things that are very familiar and thus cliché. Those familiar things are substance abuse or harmful managers or spouses. If the musician is a minority, there’s usually some kind of discrimination or bigotry for them to overcome. It’s all very predictable and repetitive. Often, what helps to relieve all of that are the musical performances, which can be dazzling vocally or visually. Such was the case with Rocketman (2019) where the director came up with amazing visuals for the songs.
Forest Whitaker (Black Panther and Lee Daniels’ The Butler) recently played a reverend and the father to Jennifer Hudson in the film Black Nativity (2013). Here, he plays a reverend and Hudson’s father again. Whitaker plays C. L. Franklin, the Baptist minister and civil rights activist who was one of the most prominent pastors in Detroit. He was friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. and of course he was the father to Aretha. He managed her career through her early 20’s. He started by getting her to sing in his church. He was controlling and abusive in ways that weren’t always physical, but he was still very controlling.
Marlon Wayans (On the Rocks and The Heat) co-stars as Ted White, the husband to Aretha and who took over as her manager, against her father’s wishes. It’s never stated in the film, but her father’s objections stem from the fact that Ted was reportedly a pimp, and not just in a metaphorical sense but in an actual sense. Yet, his role here is no different from Richard Madden’s character in Rocketman or Laurence Fishburne’s character in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993), which was the biopic about Tina Turner.
Fishburne was very sexy and serious. His character of Ike Turner was himself turned to substance abuse and his violence was fueled by jealousy because he was a male musician being eclipsed by a female musician that he discovered. Wayans’ performance is also sexy but perhaps not as serious. His affect and his persona can’t help but be funny and humorous, given that Wayans himself is such a natural comedian. When Wayans has to be serious, particularly for scenes of abuse or violence, it can’t help but come off as a little laughable.
Wayans is such a bold and loud performer who can easily steal a scene and take up all the oxygen in a room. As such, he’s perfect as this figure whose voice overpowers Aretha’s off stage, if not on stage. In a lot of ways, the film is about Aretha trying to find her voice off stage and to stand up for herself with the men in her life. She has such an incredible voice on stage and the musical performances of Hudson of Franklin’s songs are incredible, but she’s so quiet and meek when she’s not singing and having to be obedient to the men in her life.
Hudson’s best scenes in that regard are the scenes opposite Whitaker. There has been some who have pointed out what this film leaves out in terms of the relationship between Aretha and her father, as well as the backstory of her father and his marriage or marriages. The National Geographic series Genius explores more of that, but what writer Tracey Scott Wilson (Fosse/Verdon and The Americans) with a story credit by Callie Khouri (Nashville and Thelma & Louise) craft here does underscore those relationships in hard-hitting ways. Some might consider it more hagiography than a “warts and all” tale, but I think the film balances it well.
The film does create a through-line of Aretha’s “demon” or her psychological problems stemming back to a childhood trauma that she experienced. I don’t believe that Franklin ever talked about this childhood trauma publicly. Franklin got pregnant and had her first child, her first son, when she was only 12 years-old. There has been a question of who the father was of Franklin’s first child. A boy is shown entering Aretha’s bedroom at that age, but he’s never identified. He’s only shown that once and never again. Reportedly, the father of Franklin’s first child was a boy she knew from school, but, it still in several ways can be regarded as statutory rape.
It’s never called out verbally, but the effect of such an act seems to echo throughout this film. It’s a euphemism that is referred to as Aretha’s “demon.” That demon though doesn’t seem to be limited to sexual abuse. It also becomes wrapped up in other abuses at the hands of other men. We then see how it manifests in terms of her lashing out at friends and family members. The back-and-forth Aretha has with her sisters, Erma, played by Saycon Sengbloh (In the Dark and Scandal) and Carolyn, played by Hailey Kilgore (Power Book III: Raising Kanan and The Village) are prime examples.
In addition to getting swept up with Hudson’s knock-out performances, the film is littered with a wealth of great supporting actors who bring such richness and warmth to this film. This includes the so-called Queen of Hip Hop, Mary J. Blige who plays Dinah Washington. There’s Broadway star, Audra McDonald who plays Aretha’s mother. Albert Jones (Mindhunter and American Gangster) plays Ken Cunningham, Aretha’s tour manager. Tituss Burgess (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) plays Reverend Cleveland, the man who helped Aretha produce her record-breaking gospel album.
Burgess is openly gay. It’s also interesting to note that this film begins with a shot of two clearly gay, Black men in the home of Aretha’s father. LeRoy McClain plays Cecil, brother to Aretha. Lodric D. Collins plays Smokey Robinson, a Motown artist who lives down the street from Aretha and was childhood friends with her. Interestingly, the first time I saw McClain was in the film The Happy Sad (2013) in which he played a gay, Black man. The first time I saw Collins was in the series The Oval (2019) in which he plays a gay, Black man. It was simply cool to see them in the ensemble surrounding the main cast.
Rated PG-13 for mature content, strong language, racial epithets, violence and smoking.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 25 mins.